Johann Sebastian Bach
CD Number: Various (See Above)
The Art of Fugue is a most unusual work. Not only is it unfinished, but we do not know for sure for which instruments it was intended, nor even whether it was intended for performance at all. Albert Schweitzer called it "a purely theoretical work," and the first known performance took place in 1927. It was thought at one time to be Bach's final composition, but we now have evidence that at least part of it was composed around 1742, eight years before his death. It is likely that Bach intended the work as a teaching device so that later composers might understand how to construct every type of fugue, a form of music which rapidly fell out of style following Bach's death. This explanation makes sense to me, since if it were intended for performance, Bach would probably have chosen a much more memorable underlying theme, as he did for the Goldberg Variations. You would hardly be humming this one while heading for the exits.
So why play this at all? My answer changed as I played through these three very different versions.
After hearing Neville Marriner's version, which was developed jointly with Andrew Davis (now Sir Andrew Davis), I felt admiration for the performance and the composition, but little attachment and less enthusiasm. The problem is to maintain interest over a span of about 80 minutes in a succession of fugues on a rather uninteresting theme. Marriner's solution is to select widely different instruments for the various movements. Some are scored for organ, others for harpsichord, some for string quartet and still others for orchestra.
The keyboard (organ or harpsichord) may have been the instrument for which this work was intended, but here the fugues played on the keyboard come off the least successfully here, especially the Canon alla Decima. "Who could enjoy this?" my notes ask. Highlights are the fugues scored for full orchestra, where the energy and precision of the playing lifts the spirits, with Contrapunctus No. 7 best of all.
The playing is often voluptuous and always polished. There is not a touch of sentiment, but perhaps too much beauty in the violin tone that is out of place in this work. I would welcome a lighter touch, with crisper rhythms. The sound is quite spectacular, despite the vintage (July 1974). This is one of a series of remastered Quadraphonic recordings, originally issued on the Philips label in the 1970's, which PentaTone will be releasing at a rate of 10 to 15 a year on four-channel SACD hybrid discs.
Next I played the New Century Saxophone Quartet's brand new recording. The idea is excellent, since the music fits perfectly into the range of the four saxophones – soprano, alto, tenor and baritone. Some allowances must be made here since the sax can only play one line at once, and Bach's four-part score sometimes extends up to seven voices.
I really enjoyed the livelier movements, and the interplay between the musicians during some of the extended two-part writing is exemplary. But when the textures become thicker or the pace slackens, I find the sound overbearing, and long sustained notes uncomfortable to listen to. These long-held notes are often too piercing (soprano sax) or tentative (tenor sax).
At times the playing is rather romantic, as in the rhapsodic episode near the end of the Canon alla Decima. I sensed a struggle to maintain clarity in the faster passagework, but most perturbing is the lack of overall shape to some of the movements. In fact it is easy to forget you are listening to a fugue because the momentum sags and the phrasing is not sufficiently pointed. The finest feature of their playing comes at the end of several fugues where the final notes are played in unison to great effect, unmatched in the other performances. For the most successful movements, listen to Contrapunctus No.s 9 and 16.
I found it very hard to listen straight through on first playing, although on second hearing I developed either greater appreciation or more stamina (I'm not sure which), and I made it through to the end.
I was not prepared for what came next. The Julliard String Quartet made this music come alive, fugue after fugue. It certainly isn't the beauty of their tone, for this is a rough-sounding group in comparison with the String Quartet section of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. It isn't their authentic style, with not a period instrument among them, and much more vibrato than any purist would allow. The music no longer seems to drag, even though the tempos are in fact slower than on the other two recordings.
The magic comes from the exceptional shaping of each phrase, the brilliant interplay among musicians who have played a lifetime together; and full comprehension of the essence of the fugue. Playing this disc I stopped fretting over how uninteresting the simple theme is, or whether this is a good choice of instruments. All I could think about was the fugue itself. The structure of each fugue is crystal clear, the music as right and inevitable as a Beethoven sonata, and the forward momentum irresistible.
A string quartet can bring conformity of sound, sometimes emphasized by sourcing all four instruments from the same maker, or it can be a composite of contrasting sonorities. The Tokyo Quartet exemplifies the first road, the Julliard the latter. I hear much more differentiation between the voices than in the string quartet movements from the Academy. Joel Krosnick's cello displays a hard, sometimes nasal sonority that offers interesting contrasts to the other players, while Robert Mann's first violin provides a simple, rich but chesty sound. No one instrument takes prominence over the others; each has full freedom. Instrumental equilibrium is maintained throughout, along with a well-defined pulse. These factors distinguish this performance from the others. I found it much easier to follow the theme in each of the voices simultaneously, and I felt that sense of timelessness that emerges in the wonderful long chorales of the St Matthew Passion.
The syncopated playing in Contrapunctus No. 2 is particularly fine, and Contrapunctus No. 9 is a gem, with the Julliard maintaining clarity and line at breakneck speeds.
Bach's purpose in writing this music, to illustrate the art of fugue to the generations to come, is brought vividly to life by these fine musicians. I thank them for it, and I've changed my opinion completely about the music. In the right hands, The Art of Fugue is a masterpiece, no longer "purely theoretical." Had Albert Schweitzer heard this performance, I think he would have agreed.
Sound quality is not quite as clear as on the other two recordings, and the acoustic space is more intimate; but those differences never detracted from my enjoyment.
– Academy of St Martin in the Fields
New Century Saxophone Quartet