Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) (1748-50)
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
rec. 2007 (no date given), Radialsystem V, Berlin
Film director: Uli Aumüller
Sound format: PCM stereo
Picture format: 16:9
Picture standard: NTSC
Region code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK 101 467 [82:00]

Rarely have I watched a classical music DVD that has drawn me into the music the way this one did. Granted, Die Kunst der Fuge is one of my favourite pieces of music, and it’s one that always makes me pay attention. While it may be considered to be cerebral, “didactic” music, it is nevertheless a series of variations that stands head-and-shoulders over all other variation sequences.

Beyond the music, this DVD stands out by taking the viewer on stage, among the musicians as they perform. With a group of 22 instrumentalists - sixteen strings, four winds (trombone, oboe, oboe de caccia and bassoon), organ and harpsichord - the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin presents here a unique arrangement of Bach’s work. Using constantly changing groups of musicians to play the different sections, the cameras and lighting help focus on those playing, even taking the viewer in amongst the performers. While this was performed live, in front of an audience, it is actually surprising to see some of the camera angles and close-ups: there must have been at least one cameraman on stage with a steadicam. The musicians deserve credit for not being disturbed - though the audience may have been irked by this. This camera work, with its many close-ups, combined with the innovative lighting and placement of the musicians, makes the film of the work almost as interesting as the music.

There’s an initial organ chorale which is not part of the work, and seems out of place. After this Die Kunst der Fuge begins with a string quartet playing the first fugue, then the four winds playing the next one. All sixteen strings then take their turn, and each part of the work features a different configuration of musicians: sometimes a solo harpsichord or organ, sometimes a string duo or trio, and even once the organ with two winds. The variety of orchestrations highlights the different colours of the canons and fugues, and makes this one of the most delightful versions of this work that I’ve heard.

In spite of this being a live performance, there are no noticeable errors in the performance, and the musicians are clearly absorbed in their playing. While the sound is only in stereo - a surround-sound mix would have been nice, given the “in-your-face” approach to filming - it is excellently recorded.

Whether you’re a fan of Bach’s Art of Fugue or not, this DVD will help you (re)discover this wonderful music. This is one of the finest classical DVDs I’ve seen; one of the rare filmed performances that actually is worth filming for the aesthetics and direction.

Kirk McElhearn