Bach’s Art of Fugue, his “attempt to assay and unify the
whole history of contrapuntal music”, as Bradley Brookshire says,
is a work that has been performed and recorded in many forms.
From solo keyboard performances such as this to ensemble recordings
such as the excellent sets by Jordi
Savall or Reinhard
Goebel. There are also organ recordings and orchestral performances.
The Art of Fugue is a unique work that can be performed
in many forms, in part because Bach left a score with no indication
of the instruments for which it was intended. It cannot be performed
in its entirety on a single keyboard instrument - Bradley Brookshire
here uses overdubs to record Contrapunctus
XII and XIII - yet it works almost perfectly in that
idiom. It is no surprise, therefore, that keyboard recordings
are the most common. Brookshire here adds his own version to the
What struck me first
when listening to this set is the sound.
I wondered if my stereo had been set to mono by accident;
the aural image is very cramped, with a narrow sound-space
and hardly any reverberation. I was indeed listening in stereo,
but this is a strange
stereo; one that constricts, that gives little feeling of
amplitude or openness.
Once I got beyond the
aural dimension I discovered a unique performance of this
wonderful work. Brookshire gets the widest possible range
of sounds from his instrument: a harpsichord after Christian
Vater, 1738, tuned in 1/6-comma
meantone with A=415. Take, for example,
Contrapunctus V, where Brookshire plays the
melody in a very high register, providing an otherworldly
sound that almost recalls an organ. Or listen to Contrapunctus
VIII, where the rich bass tones of the instrument come
to the forefront, giving this fugue a great sense of power
Together with that variety
of sounds one is struck by Brookshire’s extreme use of rubato, or, as he defines it in the notes, “variety
of articulation and registration, or the non-simultaneous
performance of note values that are vertically aligned in
the score, or a host of other liberties”. Brookshire decries
the proscription of this tempo rubato,
and says its non-use is “totally lacking in any Baroque pedigree”.
And rubato he does. Brookshire’s approach is personal
and unique, taking the music for what it is and moulding it
to fit his ideas of interpretation. His changes of tempo,
his wide range of ornamentation, and his occasional added
flourishes, approach this music as though it were a series
of unmeasured preludes in the French style.
To the listener familiar
with the Art of Fugue, this disc is full of surprises.
This is no stolid recording à la Gustav Leonhardt,
or neo-romantic version such as the partial recording by Glenn
Gould, but one where it seems that the performer took a great
deal of care in developing an overall approach that involves
tiny decisions in each fugue and canon. While there is a
looseness in the performance due to the rubato, it all hangs together with an overall coherence.
One thing should be said
about the ordering of the work, which has led to much speculation
and many theories over the years. Brookshire seems less obsessed
by this than some other performers, calling this line of inquiry
“pointless”. He proposes his own order, adding the “final”
unfinished fugue as an “appendix” at the end of the recording.
Whatever musicologists may think about the position of this
fugue, I agree with Brookshire that its place, with its “fade
to black” is at the end of any performance. It makes no sense
to put it at any other location, having that ending point
should be followed by a new beginning.
Note that this recording
comes with a second disc, which contains an interactive score
for the work. Users on Macs or Windows PCs can view the score
page by page while listening to the work. While this may be
interesting for some, it would be a lot more so if the score
would show what it plays; if, for example, notes turned bold
as they were played. But for most keyboard players, it’s enough
to have the score. They don’t need to listen along and have
the pages “turn” for them; they can follow themselves.