The Well-Tempered String Quartet?

Review by: Jed Distler


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

With so many recorded versions of Bach’s Goldberg Variations arranged for strings on the market, it was just a matter of time before someone got around to transcribing The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I for string quartet. And that’s precisely what the Borromeo Quartet’s first violinist Nicholas Kitchen has done for all 24 Preludes and Fugues.

In general, the fugues come off best. Pieces where contrapuntal lines move busily in close proximity (the D minor, C major, and A minor fugues, for example) particularly benefit from the individual sonorities and timbral differentiation that the separate instruments offer. This also proves true in Preludes featuring steady chordal accompaniments like those in E-flat minor and B-flat minor.

The chromatic textures of the F minor and B minor fugues gain welcome vibrancy by virtue of a string player’s ability to alter vibrato or to make a crescendo or diminuendo on a single, sustained pitch. This especially hits home in the B minor prelude, where canny choices in regard to dynamic inflections and tone color bring an almost unbearable intensity to the upper lines’ downward suspensions.

While even the best harpsichordists or pianists can be hard pressed to clarify the A major fugue’s cross-rhythmic phrases with unambiguous linear independence, this becomes a non-issue with four strings. To be sure, certain Preludes that rely on idiomatic keyboard devices, such as toccata-like figurations and arpeggios, lose something in translation and ultimately in momentum; the C minor, D major, and G major are cases in point.

On the whole, Kitchen’s well-thought-out arrangements–not to mention the Borromeo Quartet’s artful interaction and finely honed balances–cast a novel and illuminating light on these thrice familiar compositions, and as such transcend any hint of gimmickry. Is Book II on the back burner?

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: None for this arrangement

  • BACH, J.S.:
    The Well-Tempered Clavier Book I (transcribed for string quartet by Nicholas Kitchen)

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