A spellbinding new account of Bach’s contrapuntal masterpiece

The Strad Recommends: Cuarteto Casals: Bach

The Strad Issue: August 2023

Description: A spellbinding new account of Bach’s contrapuntal masterpiece

Musicians: Cuarteto Casals

Works: Bach: The Art of Fugue BWV1080; Chorale Prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’ BWV668

Catalogue number: HARMONIA MUNDI HMM902717

Although The Art of Fugue graces the catalogues in several instrumental guises, the string quartet has consistently proved a practicable medium for remaining substantially faithful to Bach’s text and delineating clearly its intricate contrapuntal discourse. Cuarteto Casals views the work as a progressive sequence, extending from the first four relatively simple fugues through the more elaborate Contrapuncti V–IX, the density and chromaticism of X–XI and the spectacular mirror fugues and canons to the final triple fugue, the third subject of which is based on the letters of Bach’s name. Whether or not Bach left this last fugue incomplete is still open to scholarly debate, but these players traditionally opt to conclude it with a D major chord and proceed directly with the solemn chorale prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich’.

Judgements regarding tempos, dynamics and characterisation are difficult to fault. These players use vibrato sparingly and interact subtly and fluidly with each other to forge an idiomatic, impressively cohesive and clean-textured account. Highlights include their reading of the French-styled Contrapunctus VI, the restless VIII, the energetic IX, the mirror fugues XII and XIII, the turbulent canon at the twelfth and the grave, extended final fugue. The recording is spacious, clear and expertly balanced.