'An inspiring and distinctive performance': Quinta Essentia's Art of Fugue

'An inspiring and distinctive performance': Quinta Essentia's Art of Fugue

We were delighted to receive leading Brazilian recorder quartet Quinta Essentias latest CD for review in this issue. Summer Alp, a final-year undergraduate student of recorder and baroque oboe at the Royal College of Music in London, reviews the disc for us here...

Quinta Essentia is Brazil’s premier recorder quartet. This is their third recording since forming ten years ago (previous discs are La Marca in 2008 and Falando Brasileiro in 2013), and only the second ever recording of J. S. Bach’s Art of Fugue on recorders (the first is from the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet in 1998).

The recorder consort is uniquely placed to perform this work, which famously does not specify instrumentation. Previous performances and recordings range from realisations on the organ, piano, and harpsichord, to string, brass, and woodwind ensembles such as the saxophone quartet.  In a recorder consort, each individual voice is able to blend seamlessly into one sound, in a manner often compared to the organ, whilst also being capable of achieving independent variety within each line. Quinta Essentia utilise these qualities beautifully from the first track, setting the tone for the rest of the disc.

The form of this work is uniquely challenging: Bach writes fourteen fugues (the final one unfinished) and five canons all on the same theme. Yet the recording is well paced, with a sense of tension rising and falling throughout the performance, emphasised by the slight stuffiness of the recorders towards the end! The players use sophisticated and understated gestures throughout the fugues which give unity and flow to the whole work.

Art of Fugue combines a serious intellectualism with some lighter moments of compositional showing off, both of which Quinta Essentia manage to capture in their interpretation. I found Contrapuncti 4 and 5 fraught with melancholy, Contrapunctus 12 charming, Contrapunctus 2 rather jaunty, Canon alla Decima dance-like, and Contrapunctus 9 exciting. Throughout the disc, each fugue and canon is characterised to create a satisfyingly palette of contrasts.

Quinta Essentia also take the opportunity to explore the possibilities of their configuration, presenting some movements in the manner of a barrel organ (for example, Contrapunctus 9) and others (such as Contrapunctus 13) as more nuanced and inflected chamber music.

While the instruments mostly blend very well, there are occasional imbalances as the ensemble takes on the challenges of performing on different sized recorders. This is evident in some of the relationships between the highest and lowest instruments, particularly in terms of presence, sustained notes, and articulations. There are also a few less attractive moments in the extreme high range of the top voice, but this does not obscure the intention of the phrase.

In contrast to Loeki Stardust’s recording, Quinta Essentia have chosen to perform the final and uncompleted ‘Contrapunctus 14 a 3 Soggetti’ with a resolution (a cadence, not an interpolated completion) rather than leaving it ‘unfinished’. This leaves the listener with quite a different feeling, but following such poignant playing it has a very striking effect, and I enjoy it as an elegant solution to this contentious issue. Quinta Essentia also offer us the full complement of canons (three more than Loeki Stardust) to complete the disc.

This is an inspiring and distinctive performance that stands out amidst the plethora of recordings of the Art of Fugue.

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