I love music.

I write about the music I like and have purchased for the benefit of better understanding it and sharing my preferences with others.

Re-visiting the Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

Many eons ago, before 2000, when my website was a dark blue color, and I used to edit everything in HTML, I started doing "mini-reviews" of albums of the same work. I'd write something about the work, say a few things about different albums, and in the end, you'd get the jist about what might be the better album among the choices.

I am not sure that's what I'm aiming for here. But I'll point out a few renditions to consider, for sure.

This holiday I received a gift--my 19th copy of Bach's Kunst der Fuge. After some wrangling (and errors requiring a restart, I might add in iTunes), I took stock of all 19 albums. As Bach's ultimate work never specified an instrument, performers have had their fun choosing different ways to perform it. Among the representations I have:

  • piano,
  • harpsichord,
  • string quartet,
  • organ,
  • woodwinds,
  • saxophone quartet,
  • viols,
  • something else.

For those unware, Die Kunst der Fuge is Bach's last, unfinished work, a collection of fugues or "contrapuncti" written in open score without an instrument(s) indicated. The open score format, above all else, has given folks license to re-orchestrate the work. It has made some feel that perhaps it was not meant to be performed (an unlikely conclusion), but study was likely a function for the work. Open score makes that easier. It may also have been easier for Bach to write this way, who knows for sure.

As the piece "progresses" (no one seems to want to follow the same order, as there are differences among opinions, unpublished versions and published versions), the fugues become more complex. In total, Bach does some pretty cool things starting with a basic theme. The art of counterpoint is what might say was one of Bach's great gifts as a musician; his mind could figure out the puzzles in how to fit a theme together with itself. This art was growing out of taste by the time he died; when the work was published his son tried hard to get into the world (if not for money, to keep the legacy of his dad's art alive). Thank goodness he did.

The newest edition in my collection comes performed on harpsichord by Robert Hill, and by no means a new recording. In fact, it was recorded in 1998, and among the highlights are some actually interesting and good notes (not all versions come with good notes). Hill advocates for a harpsichord, citing the two most likely choices being organ or harpsichord. Then he goes on to advocate for an Italian harpsichord because the notes do not last as long, and this is better for all the counterpoint. I am not I would come to the same conclusion based on the length of time notes ring out, but if he likes the Italian sound, then by all means, play on an Italian instrument (or a suitable copy) for all I care.

He does not advocate for the organ because Bach organs had pedals and the pedal really doesn't fit into the piece, as he sees it. I wonder what he thought playing the piece with his colleagues from Musica Antiqua Köln earlier in his career? Their interpretation added strings to some movements, with solo harpsichord in the others. The ensemble later performed the work for a video, featuring Leon Berben, whereas Hill was joined by Andreas Staier in the 1980s edition on DG Archiv.

I bring up the MAK recording because as I've said earlier on this website (or an earlier incarnation of it) that it is my favorite reading of Bach's Kunst der Fuge. If I were to quibble about it, it would be the use in some tracks of the harpsichord with cello reading the bass line like a "basso continuo," for which appears on the surface to be a quizzical choice.

That's not to say that others who have tried to "arrange" the piece have faired better. I still am not impressed by similar choices made by two different ensembles: Concerto Italiano and Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin. A mixture of winds and strings makes for pleasant orchestration, but both ensembles at least in spots change the orchestration mid-fugue. Having a flute and oboe play in unison is strange; having one instrument fade out and another come in is not much better. Anton Webern tried this with Bach's 6-part Ricercar from The Musical Offering, BWV 1079, not only showing off Bach's great art, but his great skills as an orchestrator. I am not sure sticking to the Baroque sound world with an orchestration experiment that likely would be foreign to Bach's ears is much of interest to me.

The reading by Calefax, a modern-instrument woodwind ensemble is much stronger, even though they're guilty of a little change-over to accommodate range issues. Yet, the synergy between instruments and style adopted makes for beautiful music.

I do not own a recording by the (English) Academy of Ancient Music, but they've performed BWV 1080 too in an orchestrated fashion thanks to the handiwork of Mahan Esfahani. It's better than the Akamus version with a full orchestra, complete with sakbut, but I'm still not a fan of this re-arranging so much.

String ensemble can work; examples I own include the Keller Quartet, Emerson Quartet, Julliard Quartet, Fretwork, and Phantasm. Among the "modern" quarets, the Keller does the best job of laying off the vibrato; the Emerson are the worst. Their sound is not particularly clear, either, for the cello. Of all the Kunst recordings, the Emersons (who, I might add, I like on other recordings) is my least favorite. Yes, worse than Akamus. Julliard pours on the vibrato machine, too, but show off some passion from time to time, and the individual instruments sing more clearly in the recording.

Phantasm cheats us with only 12 tracks, the remaining are a nice reading of Mozart arrangements of Bach fugues. I wonder if Bach was familiar with the family of viols. Among the two ensembles, however, I think they're marginally better.

A more recent entrant is Il Suonar Parlante, featuring both viol and early piano. I'd wager it's an arrangement too, but one that limits tone colors and is full of enough expression to warrant a listen for the original interpretations.

I have now two pure harpsichord versions: Hill and Rieger. Both performers are associated with MAK. The two play very differently, and the two also chose very different-sounding instruments. Rieger's choice of instrument is louder, bolder, and is charastically more akin to an early piano. Hill's instrument is more delicate and mellow sounding. Their interpretations are not far off from these descriptions; I get the sense that in some parts one is showing his fast fingers off; the other is taking his time to explore the music more deeply. Both make statements that have something to like.

From the land of the pianos, Pierre-Laurent Aimard failed to really grab me in any profound way; his interpretation is competent and is polished; but the playing in some cases is either too mellow or either lacks the depth of feeling I know others have offered.

Vladimir Feltsman is always interesting. But for me the winner on the piano for a favorite spot is Angela Hewitt. She's trying so hard to make the pieces clear through articulation. I credit her with trying and following through so well. As I wrote earlier, I'd like a little more fire in my favorite, Contrapuntcus 9, but her reading is both intelligent, heartfelt, and tasteful all in one.

My recording of Gould on organ was never a favorite; his touch on the organ always felt bizarre (too choppy) and the instrument was not historic. His less-known reading on piano, however, is interesting. He only presents 7 of the fugues. The recording is hissy in spots, he makes noises, and parts ache for a little ornamental flourish. But his uncanny ability with touch that has space around the notes is a unique talent not so well and consistently followed by other pianists.

I know that Bach's Kunst der Fuge is like a complex math puzzle or a complex formula for something... I can read about that (as can you), and marvel at the type of logical thinking required to fit notes together just so. For study, it lives up to its name as something worth our time. But I also hear a lot of deep emotional material in there too, and I favor the readings that do not leave that behind. The fact that everything locks together just so and has this rich emotional currency for me is the greatest wonder of all.

In the end, the last fugue is left unfinished by Bach (take your pick of interpretations, from "he meant it that way for us to finish" to "the man died, what do you want?"). While there are solutions on the books to the last fugue, most all of the performances I have leave it unfinished, trailing off... Gould makes the most of the entrance of the "BACH" theme. He doesn't let it trail off. Curiously, Goebel and company remove the last few notes, but don't otherwise mess with the original. I will say, letting the notes trail off as they do on the score can provide an arresting, emotional reaction in the listener. It does for me, almost every time. It's my biggest disappointment with Goebel's Archiv recording.

When I was a teenager, I know owning 10 or more copies of one work would have seemed like an curse of the ulta-rich. I am not sure I need 19 copies, but I will likely have more before my collecting days are over. Especially with our favorite works, there will never be one perfect, true rendition. Musical art is steeped in what a composer leaves behind, but there's so much more of the performer and their instruments to provide the listener for enjoyment. It's not a sin to have favorites, but in case you're interested in something new from the Kunst der Fuge or you're just starting out, I'll give a few recommendations.

  • Harpsichord - I'll side with Hill here and wager that this is as good a candidate of any historical keyboard for BWV 1080. His reading has the most tracks (offering early renditions), and two-harpsichord versions (for the difficult-to-play canons). I dare say, some of his phrasing is congruent with that in the Musica Antiqua, Köln edition from several years prior). I love the lesser-known early versions included on Disc 2.
  • Piano - the piano is also a very nice instrument for showcasing contrapuntal art, some might wager better than a haprsichord. Angela Hewitt wins the prize for me here, if for nothing else, the obvious care she took in treating each piece as its own oyster.
  • Ensemble - Calefax has a really nice sound and they were captured very clearly. If the historical connection to Bach's music is not a concern of yours, then this is a winner. The best period string playing, however, goes to Musica Antiqua, Köln, which presents some movements with harpsichords.

While I took some pot shots at a few recordings, I don't really hate any of them to be quite honest. As much as I love Concerto Italiano, I just don't get their "re-arrangement" but I can't be too harsh on anyone for doing something with gusto. I own the DVD version of Akamus, playing live. It's obvious that these musicians are trying to respect the music and they succeed with good results in some spots. In the creative arts, we need folks to push boundaries, make statements, and try something new in our discovery of the old. That said, my biases are always worth knowing: I tend to prefer interpretations that are energetic, live within Bach's soundworld, and have the stamp of a performer on them. Bach, above all the other composers I know, wrote music that so transcends his own soundworld. Bach on saxophones? Why not. You can't blame some for trying.

(Making your own playlists culled from different performances is the ultimate luxury, too.)

Links worth exploring, that really point out the range of interpretation:

Do you have a version you like that I've missed? Let me know.

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