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Bach Harpsichord Inc


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of the Fugue BWV 1080 [73.50]
Bradley Brookshire (harpsichord)
rec. no information given
Experience Classicsonline

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 growing discography.

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 and richness. 

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.

Kirk McElhearn 




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