JS BACH – Fugues from the Well Tempered Clavier

Johann Sebastian Bach [1685-1750] wrote two sets of preludes and fugues for the piano, one in each of the 24 major and minor keys. At the beginning of Bach’s career, pianos were tuned in such a way that restricted them to only be able to be played in a few keys. The ‘modern’ piano tuning was developed during Bach’s lifetime. This was achieved by using an ‘approximate’ methodology. It is not absolutely mathematically nor musically accurate, but it enabled the piano to be played in all keys in a way that is satisfying to the ear. So the modern piano was born. This method of tuning was called ‘tempered’. Bach’s two sets of preludes and fugues were named Books 1 and 2 of The Well Tempered Clavier (WTC). They have come to be known by pianists as The 48.

Mozart arranged twelve of the pieces for string quartet. Later there were further arrangements written by A E Foster, who was himself a composer of over fifty string quartets.

Where does one start reviewing a whole CD of fugues? Firstly, let me restate a section of a previous post BACH The Art of Fugue from May 2016 giving a working definition of a fugue.

 A fugue is based around a short musical phrase, known as the ‘subject’. The piece begins with one instrument playing the subject. At the completion a second instrument commences to play the same phrase, not necessarily with the same notes, it may start on a different pitch closely related to the subject, possibly an interval of a fourth or fifth, above or below. This continues as other voices enter. By now, the voices are being constantly varied both rhythmically and harmonically.

The notes in the CD booklet give a far more authoritative explanation than my offering. They also have some interesting anecdotal information that I won’t go into here.

On to the task at hand: I’m going to discuss tracks 1, 3, 5 and 10.

Track 1: Book 1 – Fugue 1 in four voices BWV 846
This piece has a jaunty subject and is played at a moderate pace. The cello is prominent and drives the music along. New melodic lines come faster than you can keep up with so just sit back and enjoy. What a fabulous ending, just right!

Track 3: Book 1 – Fugue 12 in four voices BWV 857
At a length of 04:08 this is one of the longer works. The subject is very slow and introverted, and there is very little pulse here. But it is very much alive, at times sounding like one of the Brandenburg Concertos, it is just so orchestral, and very much in a call and response mode. The length allows Bach to thoroughly investigate the subject and many variations. Masterful writing and a majestic piece.

Track 5: Book 1 – Fugue 16 in four voices BWV 861
This is the shortest piece, well under two minutes. But at a swinging tempo, Bach tells a mini story. Very rewarding.

Track 10: Book 1 – Fugue 24 in four voices BWV 869
At a length of 06:22 this is the longest work. Such a lilting subject! It is given a very gentle interpretation and the music unfolds at a very restrained pace. A piece of immense beauty and transcendence, something that no one does better than Bach.

While the above are not a random selection, they are indicative of the standard of the material. These are very fine arrangements.

This is a fabulous recording and I believe we have now exhausted all of the string quartet arrangements of Bach. There may be the occasional piece out there but I’ve not seen any.

The music is from a CD by the Emerson Quartet titled simply Bach Fugues. I don’t normally enjoy the Emersons. I find them too virtuosic and sometimes the music gets lost. Not here though, Bach keeps them in line! I couldn’t find it on Spotify but there are some piano versions there. Take my advice – if it’s Bach piano you want, go straight to Glenn Gould, the Bach piano genius and all-round character.

Two CDs of the Emersons playing fugues are on Spotify and several can be found on YouTube.

Listenability: Fugues from the master.


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