On the heels of another review of a Bach arrangement, I have another, using a family of saxophones to reveal Bach's contrapuntal art with Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080.
This is the not the only recording by a saxophone quartet to perform BWV 1080. However, New Century Saxophone Quartet was new to me and they released their version on Channel Classics back in 2009. Since I already owned a version, and then sampled this one, I heard enough good stuff to pull the trigger in the online preview and I purchased this set.
Immediately I found them to be a little more polished in terms of their approach to the instruments (smoother, I could say), and I really enjoyed reading a story online about them and the CD, learning that they'd been playing these pieces for some time, and they even consulted with baroque flutist Stephen Preston for his take on baroque articulation.
There is some debate about this work and for what instrument(s) it was ultimately intended. You can find it in many guises in recordings using period instruments, but piano or even non-traditional instruments (such as saxophones) can also be found. Bach wrote it in an open score-format without being terribly specific about how it was to be played. My belief has for some time been that Bach was not finished with the piece and perhaps hadn't even thought yet about what instruments he could arrange it for. I know if I were writing a collection of fugues, I'd want to work them out in a similar way just the the planning and puzzle-figuring that's involved in putting a fugue together. I would later then set about worrying about instrumentation, articulation, and any stylistic markings.
But I am not Bach, so that proves nothing. But we have no other examples to my knowledge like this from Bach—a nearly finished (and later, after he died, published work) without indication for how or upon what instrument it was to be played. Thankfully his son CPE Bach saw fit to get it published.
The New Century quartet record the additional Chorale at the end, that is another touch point for controversy. CPE Bach included it in the published version of BWV 1080 as filler since the last "Contrapunctus" trails off, unfinished. Supposedly, as the story goes as they published, this Chorale was dictated by Bach upon his deathbed to a family friend.
Later research has put into question the "deathbed" story published with the work in 1752. Whether or not it was in fact Bach's last work probably doesn't matter for us to enjoy solutions Bach finds to his self-created puzzles of contrapuntal art. For all the planning and "math" that was required to make the notes fit his plan, the music likewise isn't cut from the same cloth as his one-line canons from The musical offering, BWV 1079. Each movement here can be thought as a "different version" of the Ricercar from BWV 1079. The theme doesn't stay constant, however, but morphs over time, only to return in original form as a secondary theme after the new theme has been set. Both the harmony, subject, and countersubjects Bach chose are all rich and interesting enough to make for affective music.
This ensemble plays without much vibrato at all and maintains a similar style throughout the movements. I might have liked a little more variation in the approach—if you're going to use a "modern" instrument, is it so wrong to explore all of that instrument's colors and possibilities for interpretation? Maybe… But the sameness of Bach's theme (and the constant beginning and ending in D-minor) would have welcomed some articulation changes or stylistic variations when listening as a complete work.
Tempo is one area they do explore, and they took their time with at least a few movements to leave a little bit of the work on the cutting room floor.
I am not sure I'd consider this some new "definitive" or "reference" recording of Bach's Art of Fugue, however, I did find myself a new recording with some merits. What the reading may lack in drama, it makes up for in clarity and an interpretation that is sensitive in part to Bach's sound world. There are a few "arrangement" errors I believe they may have made; I have not checked back with the score, but in a couple places, they play notes that seem to me might be in dispute (they don't stick out as wrong notes, but not the same notes that were played in other recordings, such as natural instead of a flat, etc.).
If you're intrigued by what a saxophone quartet can do for Bach's fugues, look no further.