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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
József Eötvös, guitar
Rec: 2002, Budapest.
Self-published EJ-06WZ


József Eötvös, whose Goldberg Variations on guitar were, in spite of a few issues of tempo, a brilliant approach to one of Bach's finest works, brings listeners not only a unique recording but a world premiere with this two-disc set of the Art of Fugue for guitar. Those familiar with the Art of Fugue, and with the guitar and its range, will wonder how Eötvös managed to record this work on such a limited instrument. He made an interesting choice, that of using two eight-string guitars, tuned a fourth apart, and overdubbing them. The result is astounding.

The Art of Fugue is one of the most profound works of music ever written, and listening to the subtle counterpoint of its canons and fugues one is astounded at how Bach took a simple theme and wove around it so many different pieces. Usually played on keyboard - though many arrangements have been made for other instruments - the guitar turns out to be an ideal instrument for this work. The attack and decay of its strings lend an unexpected sound to the music.

Eötvös performs this work with no adaptation or arrangement at all; he plays the score as it stands. The only areas where this doesn't work well are at the high end of his instruments, where the notes sound a bit weak and the decay is very short, but this is par for the course with plucked instruments such as guitars or lutes. Aside from this, Eötvös's recording is exemplary, and his performance luminous. Having four hands to play these fugues lets him dissect them and perform them with much different accents than using only two hands on a keyboard.

Eötvös deploys the full range of effects with his instrument, such as a brilliant staccato interpretation of the Canon alla Ottava, played in the fifth position in his performance. His rhythmic drive is energetic when needed and restrained when most effective as such. The range he is able to cover with his guitars is also impressive, allowing the instruments to play deep bass notes and fleeting treble notes at the same time.

The final, unfinished fugue is played here with almost a sombre tone, at a perfect tempo, but giving more weight to the lower notes, which highlights the density of this great fugue.

One item of interest for guitarists - the second CD in this set is a CD Extra containing scores of some of the fugues and partial recordings so you can play along with Eötvös, like a Music Minus One record.

This recording is truly a revelation - you have never heard the Art of Fugue like this, never heard such a distinctive approach that brings out the texture of Bach's masterful counterpoint. József Eötvös is an excellent performer, and this recording is brilliant.

Kirk McElhearn

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