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Die Kunst der Fuge › Juilliard String Quartet
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Juilliard String Quartet

Sony 1992; recorded May 1987, Washington D.C.
Menu: printed score with Choral
Total Time: 89:53

The opening of the cycle in the famous Juilliard Quartet’s interpretation is perhaps one of the most beautiful Cp.1 ever recorded. Each single note - and even the fermata before the coda - is filled with so much solemn warmth and respectful tenderness that it can make your heart melt away. There are more examples of astounding beauty, and these are also astoundingly slow: for example Canon alla Decima (6:18!) and Canon per Augmentationem (7:17!). Also, Cp.10 has rarely been heard as slow as here.

Slowness, of course, would be no sufficient conception for performing the whole work (an exception has been developed by the pianist Anton Batagov), and musical tenderness might be unbearable for the length of ninety minutes. The quartet, prized and honoured for their Beethoven and many 20th century music recordings, shows an amazing variety of expressions, and in their confrontation with Bach’s “non-emotional” score some of their courageous approaches work well, some less.

Cp.2, for example, gains a lot from the quartet’s skill of subtle dynamic and tempo changes. But why should Cp.6, originally “in stylo francese”, sound like a movement from Bartók’s middle string quartets? Sure: why not? But in this context here it appears simply unfriendly and rough.

Once again we get to the question if DKdF has to be played completely in one breath. And once more we are glad about the answer that is given as the CD medium: we can combine our own program and change, repeat, stop or continue it whenever we want. For this purpose, the Juilliard’s version offers material on finest artistic level.

One of the recording’s most appealing qualities is its deep wooden tone, darker than other string quartets. Especially for the use in this project they had built a new instrument, a viola with an enlarged deeper scale, and maybe this is the reason for the impression of a fireside soirée in a private library with old books, brown leather and a carved ceiling.

Good booklet in English/German/French.

Recommendation: Not as a whole, but certainly worth for most of the movements. No flash appealing to be expected - take your time to listen to it later, and even years later…

(June 2002)