Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 [85:14]
Canonic variations on Von Himmel Hoch da komm’ich her, BWV 769/769a [14:41]
Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079 [54:53]
Fuga a 3 soggetti (fragment), BWV 1080/19 [9:28]
Matteo Messori (harpsichord, organ), Capella Augustana
rec. May 2005, May/June 2008 and July 2009, Sala Vasari, Bologna, and Stadtkirche,
Booklet notes on CD-ROM
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94061 [3 CDs: 54:59 + 44:56 + 64:21 & CD-ROM]
Bach’s The Art of Fugue has an imposing and somewhat mysterious reputation.
There is evidence that Bach intended this work to provide a complete exhibition
of his skills in composing counterpoint and fugues. After completing the work
in the 1740s, Bach extensively revised and expanded his manuscript in the
period before his death, although he did not live to see the final volume
through the printers. The instrumentation for the score was not specified,
and each voice is given a separate stave. This has led some musicologists
to question whether the work was intended for practical performance at all.
However Matteo Messori makes a convincing case that Bach “preferred to draw
up a completely realized musical ‘treatise’ – in other words a practical exemplum
– than to write a theoretical work on the possibilities of fugal realization
on one subject”.
Bach’s instrumentation is in the nature of much learned commentary, and like
all things is subject to changes in fashion. It used to be common, for example,
to perform the Fourth Brandenburg Concerto using two flutes, whereas recorders
are now more commonly used. However, the nature of the score means that performing
The Art of Fugue is a much more speculative exercise than playing the Brandenburg
Concertos. Each recording of The Art of Fugue is actually a realisation by
the performers, depending on their particular theory of what Bach intended.
Interpretation is also required when deciding on the order of pieces, and
which ones to include. For example, there is controversy in particular about
the final Fugue a 3 soggetti, which Messori puts at the end of The Musical
Offering. The second disc of The Art of Fugue also includes a set of organ
variations on the Christmas Lied Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ich her.
The third disc of the set is taken up with a performance of Bach’s other compendious
masterpiece The Musical Offering. This work consists of a number of contrapuntal
treatments of a theme submitted to Bach by Frederick II, King of Prussia.
These versions comprise (in this recording) two ricercars, eight canons, a
fugue, and a sonata for flute, violin and continuo. The last of these, the
brilliant Trio Sonata, is a work in the galant style. Like The Art of Fugue,
the Musical Offering provides no real certainty as to which pieces Bach intended
the work to include, or in what order they should be played. Messori provides
a thirteen page booklet (on the fourth CD) in which he sets out the musicological
grounds for his realisations of these works.
Matteo Messori is a fine harpsichordist, who tempers a consistent pulse with
some well judged rubato. There is, however, an overwhelming amount of solo
harpsichord in this set. By comparison with Jordi Savall’s recordings with
Hesperion XX and Le Concert des Nations, I found it quite austere. Savall
uses a greater number of performers in these pieces than Messori, which gives
the sound of his set much more variety. For example, Savall’s set of the Art
of Fugue with Hesperion XX uses winds, strings, or a combination of both in
the first eleven numbers. Messori plays all these numbers on harpsichord,
the only variety being the use of a different instrument for the Contrapunctus
6 a 4.
Brilliant is to be commended for releasing such a scholarly set at its usual
bargain price. Because of the instrumentation, however, I see it as appealing
mainly to harpsichord specialists and Art of Fugue mavens. The recording is
natural without being too close.
Scholarly performances but those who are not lovers of the harpsichord will
find this quite austere.