Bach Art Of Fugue & 2010 Catalogue

J S Bach’s Kunst der Fugue is one of the ultimate musical expressions of much from little: from a brief theme Bach unfolds one of the grandest, and yet most personal, arches of Western musical thought. Although the manuscript is thought to date from 1742 (complete with the famous unfinished ‛fugue’), and was published in 1751, the soundworld it inhabits shows no awareness of the radical new idiom that Bach’s sons were crucial in introducing which we now call the classical style. There are no ostinati in this music, no melody-and-accompaniment figures, no homophony. What Bach fashioned was a close-to-exhaustive demonstration of the resources of the old ricercare idiom; the manuscript of the work bears solely the title Contrapunctus, Art of Fugue was an editorial addition. Typical of the old style also is the complete lack of any specified orchestration, the work being laid out as multiple lines rather than short-score; consequently, the music has been performed in a wide range of instrumental formats, from harpsichord to mixed consort, and even such anachronisms as the modern piano, string quartet, and full orchestra as David Pinto expresses it in his informative liner notes to this Fretwork CD, over instrumentation there is no end to opinion. He then points out that Gamba sonorities traditionally denoted the Other World, and, however one regards that interpretation of the work, there is no question that the sombre, uncosmetic, and archaic viol timbre imbues the music with a brooding quality entirely suitable to its pervasive Dorian D minor tonality. The opening of Fretwork’s performance, with its slightly astringent and vibrato-less tone, so very different from the more modern sound of the violin family, makes it immediately clear that this is an intimate music. The impression is almost of domestic music-making, and the listener feels privileged to be able to eavesdrop. Personally, I find that after a while I become mesmerised by the sustained, rich, homogeneous instrumental colour, and my perception of the subtle changes of texture, tempo, and imitation is heightened. The maze of imaginative counterpoint, divided into nineteen separate sections, is concluded by a sudden and palpable shift in emphasis when Bach introduces the final fugue subject we know that the journey is almost over, but, tantalisingly, the music breaks off in mid-phrase, ending the vast traverse without resolution or cadence. The only version of the Art of Fugue I regard as comparable to this one is Hesperion XX’s 1986 recording with a much more varied ensemble, remastered and reissued as AV9818, and that spreads the work, in a slightly different running order, over two CDs. This single-CD Fretwork version was well received on its first appearance in 2002, and now reissued at a low price (with a complete Harmonia Mundi catalogue included) it is remarkably good value.

Review reprinted with permission of Thomas’ Music.