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

Bach: The Art of Fugue - Accademia Bizantina

Bach: The Art of Fugue - Accademia Bizantina

Reading the liner notes, there certainly seems to be some reverence for this work, Bach’s unfinished legacy, his art della fuga from Ottavio Dantone and members of Accademia Bizantina. It is a work that speaks to me and beyond the aesthetic component, there is a richness to the work that affords study of the score.

I bought this disc without any preview. I banked on the reputation of the ensemble, of their past efforts, and was truly looking forward to enjoying this disc.

So, why does it challenge me so?

The screwy thing about BWV 1080 centers around how to perform it. Unlike his Musical Offering, BWV 1079, there’s no scoring. And despite folks figuring it out on the keyboard, performers go about inventing new ways to perform it alongside choosing which instruments are apropos. It’s as if someone looked at the score, they said “Wow, no instruments written to the left of the staff, so… let’s arrange it ourselves!” Saxophones, organs, strings, recorders, viols, you name it. For the saxophone quartets of the world, this is great: it’s new material you can play. But this mindset isn’t confined to saxophones. Like other ensembles, Dantone’s is a historically-informed operation. They play old instruments or copies. They’ve studied early music and know about the performance practices of the time.

Here are some ideas if you’re considering performing the Art of the Fuga:

  1. There’s no continuo part. This is a guess on my part, but I’d wager that the bass line in BWV 1080 is considered differently than, say, the basso continuo part in a cantata, a concerto, etc. So an apt comparison might be the performance of fugues in general in Bach. Let’s take a fugue from the Well-tempered Clavier. It’s a keyboard piece and the understanding is that all the notes required are provided. In the third movement of a Bach concerto (let’s say, BWV 1061.3), the parts of that fugue are all written out between the two keyboards. However, at some point, the whole ensemble, strings and all, comes together. For this example, Bach writes out the parts for the two keyboards. I can’t be sure for the intended instrumentation for the orchestral bass line, but in the score I’m looking at, it’s written as continuo. Many recordings would be a couple cellos and a violone on this line, providing both 8’ and 16’ bass. The support for this not being a typical continuo line, where we’d be filling in the harmony, is the absence of any figured bass numbers. I’ve always thought of the Art of Fugue’s fugues more in the vein of the fugues from the WTC. The solution in this recording, then for me, is muddied. Is the organ or harpsichord added to fill-in the harmonic texture? Or used to play in unison with the bass instrument simply for the “sound” or keyboard and string together?
  2. Bach didn’t change instruments after starting a piece on the same line. Why would you? (To be clear, it would be as if he’d written a flute and a violin part on one line, and then marked in the score when the notes should be covered by the flute, the violin, etc.) This was the approach taken by the ensemble Concerto Italiano. It lives on in this recording.
  3. Transparency is good. But it isn’t high art. There has often been an argument for trying to increase the transparency in counterpoint to the listener. That, say, the Ricercar à 6 from BWV 1079 is better played by an ensemble rather than a single keyboard. Give the bassoon his own line and it’s easier for me to hear that line amid a complex texture from the score. Or, say, with strings, I might position the players on the stage just so, apart, so that the entrances and such are more easily captured by listeners. But my belief is that going for transparency as the ultimate aim is probably foolhardy. Transparency seems more of a modern pursuit than a baroque one.
  4. Bach was a musician. You’re a musician. Think like a musician. In other words, don’t do things that don’t support the aesthetic enjoyment of the music. That very much is a modern concept, I know. But there’s a kind of code we adhere to as musicians to make music. This is a very subjective statement, but then I go back and look at what other examples Bach left us.

Dantone’s Accademia Bizantina isn’t a bad group. And neither is Decca a bad label. The musicians are first rate, and the recorded sound is really good. Contrapunctus 8 is a good fugue. It’s presented here alone on harpsichord. Works for me. There is a lot of conjecture on the appropriate instrumentation. Many times a single keyboard is cited as an appropriate solution. Contrapunctus 2 is also presented on solo harpsichord. Good sounding instrument, even!

Contrapunctus 3 is another solo keyboard treatment, but here it’s presented on an organ. This sounds wholly appropriate, but the instrument used is one that seems designed for use as a continuo instrument). Bach had access to big organs. Ones with pedals. I’m not an expert, but I want to raise the point because I’ve seen it raised in the past about these organs.

Contrapunctus 1 has a beautiful string treatment. This is where the ensemble shines: that tight, warm string sound. And playing the music, again, on instruments in Bach’s instrumentarium makes sense. At the end of the day, we have examples of Bach writing music for strings. The difference is the bass isn’t a continuo line. Why is the organ present? (It’s hardly perceptible at times, but I hear it.) Contrapunctus 4 too uses a continuo keyboard, this time it’s the harpsichord. It helps to aurally separate the bass line, but chords are being added. Why would some fugues take extra notes added for harmonic embellishment, and others not? I love the treatment and graces afforded in Contrapunctus 6, im stile francese. More continuo keyboards. See no. 1 above. The fast double fugue, Contranpunctus 9, is full of energy and assuredness. Why are there strings and keyboards, though? The same kind of approach is had for Contrapunctus 7. Makes the entrances of the slower lines sound wonky. Yes, I do hear those entrances. Transparent as can be. But are we making music or helping make a video to illustrate the artistry behind the piece? At the end of the day, the score can be had for free online. It’s the most transparent way to show off the artistry. To read the music.

In Contrapunctus 5 we get two keyboards. This is hardly new. In his recording, likely from the early 1990s, Ton Koopman partners with his wife Tini Mathot on two harpsichords to record BWV 1080. The solution here offers transparency, and makes the case for the “continuo” organ versus full pipes, on account of matching the timbre and volume of the two instruments. I like this sound, actually. I do have reservations about its historical authenticity. And then what? It’s all ruined with strings coming in from nowhere. Why? In the end, it sounds like AB wants to not only re-think Bach, but also have a go at becoming a baroque version of Anton Webern.

Some arrangements, such as the thirteenth track, Contrapunctus 12, are treated in such different ways from the others. Strings were fine for the rectus. Why change it for the inversus? And all that filigree and ornamentation? See numbers 3-4 above.

Track 19, the Canon All Duodecima, the music making is in high order. I love the flavor and style AB adopts here. The harpsichord sound with the bass is very “period.” But somehow filling in the texture seems wrong here. If we played this straight as a keyboard piece, would we be filling in parts with extra notes?

All of my four comments above are ripe for dissection in their performance of the final track, the unfinished fugue with 3 soggetti. The piece opens with a gorgeous sound. The violin phrasing, the sound of everyone fitting together (the organ adds to this luxurious sound but I do not feel it should be there) is sublime.

And then a new subject appears. Hello! Wake up! It’s on the harpsichord now. We just changed instrumentation. Weird? The cello sneaks in. And then viola. Love the flourishes from Dantone on the harpsichord. But the entrances of the strings to underscore the themes is almost like ghosts in someone’s head. We’re no longer making music in a way that is germane to the composer or period. We’re going out of our way to highlight the complexity of the music to the modern listener. And the cost of that transparency, I’d argue, is the aesthetic enjoyment of the piece. The musical geeks among us might care deeply for the contrapuntal art and how Bach fit these themes together like puzzle pieces. But at the end of the day, the mechanics are secondary to the piece itself. Despite the puzzle that is the piece, it’s also profoundly good music.

The re-entrance of the harpsichord at the end, right before the piece ends, is so unfortunate. Its entrance and the faster tempo is akin to rushing a car off of a cliff. In other words, it’s musically unsatisfying. I get it, we’ve come to another structural point in the fugue, let’s highlight it, and yes, it’s unfinished. So if it were to go on that might make your point. But it doesn’t finish. It’s unfinished. It’s one of the last things Bach wrote, damn it.

Dantone writes (from the liner notes):

But the extreme complexity inherent in Bach’s writing can, at times, restrict the performer psychologically in expressing their emotions. This is probably because an overly expressive performance of The Art of Fugue can mislead the listener or distract them from understanding the incredible way the piece is constructed. However, while its speculative structure is naturally a fundamental concept, inherent to the nature of the fugue itself, I believe that the aspect that requires the greatest focus is the composer’s ability to make something based on restrictive, self-controlled writing so beautiful and communicative.

He also states:

The more difficult the fugue is and the more varied its form, the more emotion and pleasure can be drawn from it and the better the musical result.

I’d wager at this point that I probably disagree somewhat with Dantone’s aims with the recording. With respect to the second statement, I will agree there is much to marvel in a complex fugue. The final track of his recording would seem to illustrate his point. But let’s take our heads out of the equation for a moment and consider the musical results. I want to enjoy the music. I am not caught up in the distraction of how it fits together. My brain, connected to my ears and my heart all do this automagically for me as a human being.

There is no precedent in performance practice that I can think of from Bach or this period where instrumentation is changed to help the listener appreciate the incredible way the piece is constructed. And that’s my primary criticism of this recording. It makes me angry there are so much high quality things about it, but in the end, something got lost. The musical result, the one we hear (not the one on the page) doesn’t appear to be the ultimate aim of the recording. I’d equate it to riding in an expensive, high-powered sports car. We all probably like the ride. But some folks want to tinker with the engine, they want to spend their time tuning the exhaust, and sometimes, maybe, marvel at the complexity of that engine by popping the hood and just staring at the engine.

I want to enjoy the power, yes, but I want to enjoy the ride.

This review has me questioning the point of writing reviews and publishing them online. In the end, I love the music and I find it a stimulating exercise in deeper listening to point out things that are really great (or sometimes not great) about a recording. My ultimate aim is not to get you to buy what I like (and in today’s musical marketplace, the idea of buying recordings maybe antiquated, if all the new stuff is immediately available to you on a subscription service). And it’s not the opposite either, to push you away from certain recordings. It’s to communicate details that make the music and enjoying the recordings… enjoyable. If a review helps you hear something different, or to consider a different point of view, or encourage you to just listen, then great. But what I hope comes across in every one of the reviews is the application of the same standard to each recording.

I’ve heard from folks that don’t like a review—they disagree. And this is par for the course. There are reviewers I seek out because I admire their insight and I’m on the same page with them about what they like and do not like. The only way to achieve this level of admiration is to stick to your guns. The challenge is writing about what I like and what I don’t like in objective ways that can be understood, when the reality is those likes and dislikes are ultimately subjective and far more about what comes into our ears and hearts than ideas transmitted through written text.

Conclusion

For as much as I respect these musicians and can very much hear their admiration for the music in the phrasing and articulation, ultimately this isn’t a recording for me. For similar reasons mentioned above in my four points, I wasn’t the biggest fan of the recordings by the Akademie für Alte Musik or Concerto Italiano.

So be it. The one thing I can say, without reservation that I believe, and that this recording champions, is a desire by today’s musicians to push the envelope and try new things. After all, no one needs ten recordings of the same thing. Need Art of Fugue with just four string players? Yeah, I got four of them. And maybe that’s the spirit of this recording. Let’s try something a little different with the aim of helping balance a respect for the engine but at the same time, giving our listeners and exciting journey around the race track.

That approach may challenge us, but being challenged is, I think, a good thing. This just won’t be a recording I visit often.

French Baroque Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard

French Baroque Sonatas for Violin and Keyboard