Review by beardawgs January 15, 2005 (7 of 7 found this review helpful)
|If there ever was a piece of absolute absolute music, Bach’s final masterpiece is THE one. According to the legend (partially dismissed in the booklet of this issue) blind genius was dictating the closing quadruple fugue from his deathbed to his son never to finish it. And in the score it is left as it is, interrupted in the middle of the line.
The Art of the Fugue is a compendium of theoretical musical knowledge of the era and it is still a towering monument of the western music, alongside 48 Preludes and Fugues and St Matthew Passion. Actual manuscript is a puzzle on its own – there are no indications for the instruments, and according to some sources, Bach never intended it to be performed, and it hasn’t been until late in the 20th Century. Single theme is developed into various numbers of voices according to the rigid rules of the fugue form. Main theme is based on Bach’s signature tune – BACH - to be twisted, mirrored, inverted and tumbled in such a complex manner, resulting in a deeply moving music. Even as the ultimate theoretical exercise in counterpoint, The Art of Fugue never lacks personality and Bach’s ever present humanism.
Since Bach didn’t mark any instruments in the score, every performance, especially by the chamber group is going to sound and feel different. There is no ‘performing’ edition as such, and this one being prepared by Marriner and Andrew Davis is unique as any other. Argument for performing this collection with the chamber orchestra (instead of keyboard instruments) is in variety of colours and textures that can be created for every single counterpoint (and there are 15 of them, plus 7 canons and fugues). There are also (minor) differences in succession and with all that in mind, there can not be a ‘definite’ performance or recording.
Marriner and his chamber group (string quartet, 2 oboes, cor anglais, bassoon, organ and two harpsichords) provide plenty of variety in different formations. Recorded in heydays of St. Martin in the Fields, all of them are strong performers and excellent soloists, but my impression is that the arrangement here is based more on the need for textural diversity than musical flow. My favourite performance/arrangement for the similar forces is still Karl Munchinger with Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra, but that’s just a personal preference (and the fact that I grew up with that recording). Marriner and his players are admirably impersonal, which is perfectly in tune with the idea of the whole piece, but again, personally I prefer more human touch and a bit of Munchinger’s serene melancholy. Otherwise, this is highly satisfying recording, with every counterpoint and voice clearly distinguishable, and as a whole even moving, especially in full orchestral numbers.
The recording is not as warm and spacious as some other in the series, but is in keeping with the style of the performance. Harpsichords are solid and firm (a bit close as well), while organ and lower strings have nice bloom (if you’re bothered with the non-musical noises of some instruments, there are quite a few of them too, but that’s not an issue for me). Dynamic range is big, but I couldn’t get the impression of the space – presumably different numbers are recorded with different microphone positioning, but again, it all serves the purpose of variety and diversity from one section to another.
This is just one possible understanding of the puzzle that The Art of the Fugue is, and as I said, there can not be a definite performance. I wouldn’t part from any version we already have – be it on the piano, organ or chamber orchestra. This is still a very nice and valuable addition to the collection.
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Review by canonical March 9, 2009 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
|The previous review provides an excellent background. I might briefly comment on the following paragraph:
> according to some sources, Bach never intended it to be performed,
> and it hasn’t been until late in the 20th Century.
The Art of the Fugue did appear in European concert halls in 1927 ... so more early 20th C than late 20th C.
> there are no indications for the instruments,
While there may be no indication for instruments, I think it plain (and widely understood) that Bach conceived the work for keyboard. The very absence of specific instrumentation almost serves to confirm the obvious.
The advantage of using different instruments for different parts is that one can highlight counterpoint more easily. Oddly, though, I think this is also the weakness ... it can become almost too easy. Why? Because every time Mr Violin or Ms Cello gets the theme, he or she will invariably shout out: "Oh - it is me - I have it - oh I do so la dee dah - oh look at me". And they can do this almost without regard of what the other players are doing.
By contrast, when a single keyboard has to manage 4 parts, the artist has to conceive the whole in a completely different way - as a constrained problem: there is only so much dynamic range. So you have to manage how you control sound levels, not only of each part relative to every other fugal part, but of the the collective parts together over time throughout each fugue.
This recording starts out with the strings doing a "Oh - it's me - I have it" theme contest .... right from the very first bar. Compare that to Glenn Gould's solo *piano* performance (his organ performance of same is best left unmentioned). Gould starts from nothingness. He starts pensively .... slowly. And he builds and builds from nothingness, adding layer and layer of complexity. And builds ...
Gould's rendition is genius.
The use of different combinations of instruments by the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, in the different fugues, does seem to make the work more approachable. It is tastefully done, and it really works. At the same time, the changing of instrumentation across the various 'contrapuncti' can sometimes seem to have something slightly ersatz about it.
The sound on this SACD is rich and warm ... really quite pleasant. It must be stated that, at a few distinct places, there is some distortion ... this is at its worst in the final unfinished quadruple fugue (at about 6min10secs in the final track it becomes nasty, on both the SACD and CD layers) ... But overall, the quality of the sound one hears is superb for a 1974 recording. And the performances are excellent too. It works far better for me than the version for string quartet by the Juilliard String Quartet - even when similar combinations of instruments are at work.
But to hope for genius from this rendition may be too much to ask. For that, we stay with Gould.
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