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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 [71:29]
Albert-Jan Roelofs (harpsichord I)
Alessandro Santoro (harpsichord II, BWV 1080/12, 18)
rec. Westvestkerk, Schiedam, The Netherlands, 25-26 April 2005
No catalogue number or label given [71:29]
Experience Classicsonline


I have known Albert-Jan Roelofs as a colleague at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague for a number of years. Little knowing my fearsome reputation as a rapacious CD reviewer, he handed me a copy of this disc in all innocence as a freebie in return for my having done some translation work. My interest thus declared, both to him and to you as our valued reader, I solemnly promise all sides that I shall be unbiased and honest with this recently released disc of Bach’s monumental BWV 1080.
 
My own little experience with Die Kunst der Fuge began and nearly ended over 30 years ago with Herbert Tachezi’s 1977 organ version on Telefunken’s ‘Das Alte Werk’ series. No doubt well-informed for its time, it was and still remains a hard pill to swallow in musical terms, at least in terms of any kind of enjoyment. My interest was later revived somewhat by the 1979 Ars Rediviva chamber orchestra version on Supraphon, which now however sounds unbearably dated, though I still like their inclusion of the unfinished Fuga a tre soggetti, the final gesture of which appeals to my romantic and no doubt overly sentimental soul. Albert-Jan argues against its inclusion, and can give many and diverse reasons why this ‘unfinished’ part of the work doesn’t fit with the rest of the work. The same goes for the dancing rhythms of the two versions of Contrapunctus 13 a 3. Whatever one thinks of this recording, one can at least rest assured that every aspect of it has been carefully considered and researched.
 
Albert-Jan Roelof’s own booklet notes are concise but informative, and blow some of the old preconceptions on this work out of the water. For instance, “since Die Kunst der Fuge was published one year after Bach’s death, the work is often connected with the last years of his life”, but “in counterpoint studies written by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and corrected by his father in the mid thirties of the 18th century, we find the first traces of the the-art-of-fugue-theme”, and “the work was not finished with the completion of the manuscript... By 1746, the last section of the manuscript being written on paper dating from that year, the final copy was turned again into a rough draught. If we compare the manuscript with the printed version of 1751, the various differences indicate that Bach altered nearly all aspects of the work during the last years of the decade. He added new contrapuncti, recomposed others, changed the metre of some and rearranged them in a different order.”
 
Following on from the arguments against the movements which have not been included, the performer writes that the remaining movements “are played in the order that is most likely to reflect Bach’s intentions, an order that shows wonderful mirror structures on different levels.” This order is: Contapuncti 1-12, Contrapunctus Inversus a 4, Fuga a 2 Clav., Alio Modo Fuga a 2 Clav., Canon alla Ottava, Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza, Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta, and Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu.
 
I am sure the arguments will rage on as to which order of movements is best, but in this recording the sequence has an inner logic which to me seems to work very well indeed. The long sequence of twelve Contrapuncti might suggest monotony, but the richness of Bach’s invention is a never ending source of mental refreshment in whichever order you place the movements. Albert-Jan’s judicious choice of tempi helps is this regard, even if the differences are subtle in the first seven pieces. The versions played on 2 harpsichords, Contrapunctus 12 inversus a 4 BWV 1080/12.1 & 12.2 and BWV 1080/18.1 and 18.2, have been chosen in order to interpret the three and four-part mirror-fugues, reflecting how they might have been performed in Bach’s circle using the original format of the score. The appearance of these movements before the final four canons works as the climax to a kind of golden-section proportion, and the flowering of the single harpsichord into chamber music make for magical moments either way. In this sense, there is a duality to the structuring of the work: I feel the sense of form over a larger, thematically related whole, but at the same time each piece within creates its own world, as kind of study or exercise in the perfection of that particular kind of fugue or canon.
 
Both of the harpsichords used for this recording have been fairly recently made by Jan Kalsbeek, with whose instruments Albert-Jan Roelofs has worked closely on all his ‘solo’ recordings. These well matched harpsichords are both based on models of ca 1700 by Michael Mietke of Berlin, and while the sound is less strong in the bass than some I have heard, the instruments are balanced and tuneful, having a well rounded, ringing tone, free of tiresomely clattering upper harmonic clashes or overly stiff plectra.
 
The arguments for performing Die Kunst der Fuge on the harpsichord are strongly put here, referring to the tradition of Das wohltemperierte Klavier, and also to those of Froberger and Frescobaldi for writing keyboard polyphony on four staves. I still like my ensemble recordings such as the Musica Antique Köln under Reinhard Goebel on Archiv, but would agree that most of the organ recordings I have heard fall short of ideal in the long run. In the end, all of the intellectual discussions are worth nothing if the musical message isn’t brought across, and my opinion is that in this case it most emphatically is. Roelofs’ playing is rhythmically accurate, and restrained but not puritanical in terms of ornamentation. Helped by a recording of excellent clarity, the contrapuntal voices can be followed like the lines in a Rembrandt etching, and are as equally rewarding of repeated study.     
 
Surprisingly, a trawl of available versions of BWV1080 showed there to be hardly any recordings of the work on harpsichord currently in the catalogue. There is Davitt Moroney on a two disc Harmonia Mundi set from 1999 which has been generally admired, but other versions seem to range from piano to Canadian Brass via numerous string quartet and organ versions. With his carefully prepared and expertly executed performances, Albert-Jan Roelofs easily convinces that the harpsichord is as valid as many of the alternatives available, if not more so – fans of the instrument will find plenty to revel in from this recording.
 
Dominy Clements

 


 


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