JS BACH Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080 (Delian Quartet)
Previous Oehms albums from this German quartet have occasioned critical reservations in these pages over their apparently ill-prepared or uncommitted playing of Schumann and Beethoven (1/09, 6/13). No complaints on that score: this is a confident and shapely traversal of The Art of Fugue in an intelligent ordering of the material that interposes the canons at strategic points between the contrapuncti, sensitively rounds off the uncompleted three-voice fugue with the ‘deathbed chorale’ and even sets aside the pair of mirror fugues for their prescribed instruments (‘a 2 claviere’ as indicated on the manuscript) as an encore to an adventurous companion piece by the Italian composer Stefano Pierini (b1971).
So what’s my beef? That new piece, for starters. Cantai un tempo … takes its name from the first of three mock-Renaissance madrigals on period texts which Pierini prefaces with instrumental intermezzos. Claudia Barainsky’s sensual delivery of the vocal lines sits at odds with the dissonant, splintered accompaniment: artful hall-of-mirrors stuff, and an ancient-modern conceit fulfilled rather more affectingly in the quartet arena by Adès’s Arcadiana, now a quarter of a century old.
Back to Bach, then. With their pretty but astringent tone and clipped phrasing the Delians style themselves as a viol consort manqué, but turn to Fretwork or especially Phantasm (my top choice 10 years ago for BBC Radio 3’s Building a Library) and you’ll encounter playing on another level of commitment and sympathy – and gravity. Yes, fugues such as the Vivaldian No 9 can dance if you want them to. But if the elderly Bach had wished to sum up his life’s work with another dance suite, that’s what he would have done. He didn’t. Forensically close recorded sound, a brisk and businesslike attitude to the great statements of the work (not least Nos 4, 8 and 11) and most of all the Delians’ bleached, pine-scented tone all conspire to rob Bach’s musical will and testament of the seriousness of purpose which is its due however and wherever it’s performed.