This recording, originally released some 15 years ago, was a catalogue landmark at the time. Jordi Savall's arrangement of the Art of Fugue was bold and unique, and his scoring, for two instrumental groups (four winds and four viols), was innovative. It has withstood the test of time, and has now been re-released in a remastered version, in new packaging, on Savall's AliaVox label.
Bach's Art of Fugue, is, as Jordi Savall says in his liner notes, "a work full of mystery". Originally written in open score - that is, each voice on a separate stave - it has traditionally been played on harpsichord or other keyboard instruments. It is a compendium of fugues and canons, all based on the same subject, with an unfinished fugue at the end. There has been much speculation about the order of the pieces - about whether Bach intended to finish the final fugue (which ends at a point where the composer has "written" his name, the notes B-A-C-H (b natural) being played).
However one may approach this work, whether on harpsichord (there are excellent recordings by Davitt Moroney and Robert Hill, to mention only two) or on organ (André Isoir's recording stands out here), or in an orchestral arrangement (Reinhard Goebel's recording has long been one of the best, in addition to the current disc), a great deal of liberty is available to the interpreter. Since Bach did not specify which instrument(s) this work is to be played on, one can arrange it in any way. Some excellent orchestral versions have been recorded, as have some real flops.
Savall adopts a minimalist approach - two groups of four musicians are used: wind group, with a cornet, oboe da caccia, tenor trombone and bassoon, and a string group, with a quartet of viols. This gives what is probably the most distinctive texture among the many orchestral recordings. Both intimate, because of the limited number of instruments, and haunting, because of their combination, this is a perfect arrangement. It stands as one of the most beautiful recordings of this work.
Savall's choice of which group plays each fugue depends both on the music itself and on the surrounding fugues. There is sometimes an alternation from one fugue to the next, and sometimes, such as in the two versions of Contrapunctus 12, the same group (here the viols) plays both. The sound that comes from these instruments highlights the mysterious, mystical nature of the music, and maintains a tension throughout the work that a harpsichord alone cannot manage.
There are a few pieces, such as the Canons 14 and 15, where even fewer instruments are used. These two works, scored for two viols, are magnificent in their Spartan sound, each viol playing one of the two lines of the canon, blending perfectly.
Some of the most moving pieces - and, in this recording, moving is indeed the word to describe the feeling this music arouses - use all eight instruments together. The long Contrapunctus 11 (the triple fugue) and the unfinished Contrapunctus 18 are two examples of this. Not only do the two groups marry perfectly, but Savall's brilliant arrangement has the instruments each speaking as in a strictly organized discourse, with their tones fitting in perfectly for each phrase they declaim. The lush texture of these works, especially the final fugue, is memorable; the tone colours attained by the use of these particular instruments is unforgettable. The beginning of the final fugue, for example, has some of the most poignant sounds I have ever heard, through the progressive entry of the four winds. It almost sounds as though Bach actually scored the work for these instruments - the texture is so perfect, so ethereal, that one is deeply moved. When the strings join in perfect harmony with the winds, the sound becomes so rich and full that one cannot imagine this work being played on other instruments. And this fugue ends with the viols alone, in a mirror image of its beginning.
By this point, you have probably understood that, for me, this
is one of the finest recordings of this magnificent work. Together with
Savall's new recording of Bach's Musical Offering (what Savall calls
Bach's Testament), these two works bear witness not only to Bach's
genius, but also to Savall's deep understanding of these works. Buy
this without hesitation if you want to discover the richness of this
magnificent work, in a haunting, unique arrangement. This is, indeed,
one of the best versions available, and will likely remain so for a
very long time.