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Die Kunst der Fuge › Keller Quartett
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Keller Quartett

String quartet
ECM 1998; recorded May 1997, Germany
Menu: printed score without Choral
Total Time: 72:01

In his novel Suche nach M. the young Viennese author Doron Rabinovici describes a character with a puzzling habit: at the end of every phrase that he is speaking he raises the melody, so that anything he says sounds like a question. Whatever he intends to express, he mostly causes funny troubles and confusion, in everyday talking as well as in profound discussions. And this is somehow the impression that remains after listening to most of the movements of DKdF in the Keller Quartet’s conception.

The booklet offers “A Guide to J S Bach’s The Art of Fugue with the Keller Quartet”, written by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich. Though rather high-handed, the essay is smart and worth to be read, and its title gives exactly the program for the quartet’s special interpretation: Counterpoint - Harmony of the Spheres in Enigmatic Form.

The four players, skilled by rich experience in 20th century classics (Bartók, Kurtág etc), do not try to give any answers to the questions that occur around Bach’s work (it seems they “just play” it), but its enigmatic character probably never has been shown so clearly, and still it remains enigmatic, even esoteric in its original sense: hidden, hard to find, difficult to discover. Some doors are shown, leading into the secret garden, and it’s up to the listeners to walk through and make their way.

But the secret is, at least, very very beautiful. Their playing has often been described as “a historic performance on modern instruments”, and indeed: gentle, straight bowing, so that the rare moments with a subtle vibrato seem to be quotations from different styles of interpretation, and a small ornament here and there is surprising in this context. To be clear: all in all, it sounds rather modern than baroque; maybe even post-modern (whatever that means), and sometimes even as cold as the spheres in outer space are supposed to be. But András Keller’s breathing will always remind us that these are human beings treating their instruments, and they do it in an extraordinarily smart, even wise manner.

The beginning of Cp.7 seems to imitate a viol, and further on a playful staccato makes us smile. Cp.4 is the lightest movement in this recording, easy-going; contrasting with Cp.3 which comes heavily, and very haunting. A sympathetic impression remains after the classical diminuendo & ritardando ending of Cp.10. And the finale, the unfinished 3rd theme of the Last Fuge, seems to come from some transcendental world… Many stunning little details could be mentioned; all of them are so clearly reasoned and audible, like black ink sketches on a plain white ground…

…and like the cover design - stylish, “cool”, but beautiful. The booklet contains, in addition to the mentioned essay in German/English/French, a small German excerpt from Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s famous lecture “Der ferne Bach” - “The distant Bach”; another programmatic title, but the distance is as beautiful as a sunset in a wide winter landscape.

Recommendation: Absolutely. Certainly one of the most interesting DKdF recordings ever; well prepared, skilfully played, and always with an audible meaning behind each single note.

(July 2002)