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Die Kunst der Fuge › The Portland String Quartet
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The Portland String Quartet

Arabesque, 1995. recorded January 1984, New York (Caedmon)
Menu: printed score without the 4 Canons, the 2 Cp. a 2 Clav. and the Choral.
Total Time: 73:17 (on 2 CDs!)

Whether you like (at least some of) the results of the efforts, that have been made during the last 40 years under the name of Historical Performance, or not - these movements have influenced our sight on early music works enormously, and more than that: they changed our way of listening.

The Portland String Quartet plays those parts of DKdF which have been transcribed by Roy Harris and M.D. Herter Norton and published in 1936 - a pioneer editing, because at that time, very few people knew the work and almost nobody had ever heard it. (The assumed rebirthing year, Karl Straube’s presentation of Wolfgang Graeser’s orchestration in Leipzig, is 1927.)

This recording, however, also seems to come from the before-HiP-era. Stereo effects with clearly located players aside, the whole conception (if there was one) gets drowned in a swamp of unreflected use of vibrato & legato. Solo passages soaked with overweight lamento; tutti muddled under too much of anything - maybe solistic ambitions instead of a well balanced ensemble playing. If the recording bears some hidden qualities, the dominant impression will remain: it is old-fashioned. But, by the way, why do they play their wide-dynamic-range instruments throughout mezzo- or forte, almost never piano? Hard to stand, the whole thing, nowadays…

Some refreshing exceptions: in Cp.9 the fire of the starting fanfare lasts till the end of the piece, and Cp.12, played con sordino, creates a mysterious, haunting atmosphere. In Cp.10, the sentimentality comes in a smaller dose.

Recommendation: There are more recordings with string quartet available, most of them complete, and many of them much better.

(March 2002)