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J. S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Klavier, Book I, Transcribed for String Quartet by Nicholas Kitchen. The Borromeo String Quartet. Living Archive. © 2017. (1 hour 45 minutes). $25. Available from Amazon and iTunes.
Perhaps the Age of Musicological Purity has passed? In the early twentieth century, transcribers such as Leopold Stokowski brought Baroque works such as J. S. Bach's organ works to a wider public via transcriptions making full use of the modern Romantic orchestra's resources. After nearly a half century of using period instrumentation (the HIP or Historically Informed Performance) there has been a slow resurgence of the art of transcription. One of the most widely successful transcriptions of Bach's Goldberg Variations, S. 988 has been that by Dmitri Sitkovetsky. Perhaps music lovers seeking a broader perspective of Book I of The Well-Tempered Klavier, S. 846-869, will find favor in this imaginative and vital transcription by Nicholas Kitchen, leader of the Borromeo Quartet.
The members of the Borromeo Quartet are violinists Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesum Kim. The back label details the recording: "In July 2016, the BSQ recorded all 48 pieces in four sessions in Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music. The recording was made by Jeremy Sarna and Loren Stata. Kitchen then did the editing of the 48 pieces and mastered the final CD with Nick Davidson." The sound on these discs is superb, beautifully capturing the sound of the individual instruments within a space with an ideal reverberation period. Clarity and warmth are perfectly replicated. Each instrument's timbre is ideally reproduced.
Bach intended dual purposes for Book I, education for students of keyboard and composition, and pleasure of those already skilled. The preludes evolve in stylistic variety over the course of Book I. Transcription repays in spades in the complex and multi-voiced fugues where strands were implied or suggested when played on a keyboard. The antiphonal seating of the violinists, with cellist and violist between them, adds another layer of clarity.
Kitchen's choices of dynamics and tempos seem exemplary while his distribution of the string parts is imaginative and immediately engaging. The Borromeo Quartet articulate and phrase this wonderful music with extraordinary virtuosity. There is a dazzling sense of the breathe and flow of the music. It is awesome to follow the interplay of the four voices over such long and complex fugues as those in Prelude and Fugue No.12 in F minor, S. 857/858 or No. 24 in B minor, S. 869/870. So-called "simple" preludes such as No. 1 in C, S. 846, No. 9 in E, S. 894, or No.18 in G-sharp minor, S. 863 are wonderfully satisfying.
This set will repay frequent hearings. The good news is that Kitchen is already engaged in preparing a transcription of Book II. It is amazing that the musical treasure had its impetus in the transcriber having been caught in a particularly long traffic jam he encountered during a performance residency in Beijing, China in January 2015.