Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuga (The Art of Fugue), BWV1080 (from MS Bach P200, 1742-1750)
Accademia Strumentale Italiana/Alberto Rasi
rec. 2019, Nazareth Church, Verona, Italy
CHALLENGE CLASSICS CC72842 [68:22]
Brian Wilson beat me to it with his substantial review of this fine recording, but I am delighted to be able to add my own response to what looks like becoming a favourite when it comes to chamber-music settings of The Art of Fugue.
J.S. Bach’s music has such a core or quality and contrapuntal clarity that it will sound good on almost any instrument or combination of instruments. Viols are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I rather like their restrained resonance and antique sonorities. With the Accademia Strumentale Italiana there is also a violin adding expression to the upper registers, and the string sound is sometimes filled out with an organ, which also has some solos to add contrast throughout the sequence. Dynamics are generally on the soft side, and the players respond to the natural rise and fall of the music as well as employing a typical messa di voce shape to individual notes, so that there is plenty of inner animation to keep everything buoyant. There is enough contrast of tempo to maintain interest as well, the Fuga rectus alla Duodecima for instance picking up a brisk forward momentum that makes the theme picked out in the bass an exciting moment indeed. There is a limit beyond which viols can sound a bit scrubby, but these musicians know what they are doing, and there is nothing here that sounds rushed or out of control.
Another appealing aspect of this performance is rhythm. Appropriate dance character and dotted accents makes for a reasonably lively Fuga inversa in Stylo Francese, but there is attention to detail everywhere in terms of note durations and articulation. The organ solo of the Canon in Hypodiapason in a descant register is a delight, and each piece had me listening to well-known music with fresh ears. The final unfinished Fuga a 3 Soggetti always has to be special, and with a measured pace and sustained shaping of the whole as instruments are gradually introduced this is a nicely moving experience, and tailing off just as Bach left it.
Leaving aside solo organ or piano versions of The Art of Fugue, there are a few recordings around that can reasonably be compared with this one. Phantasm recorded a version for viol quartet on Simax Classics PSC1135 which is well played and nicely recorded, but of course doesn’t have the variety or sonorities and textures you hear with Accademia Strumentale Italiana. Another viol quartet, Les Voix Humaines, has a version on ATMA Classique ACD22645. This is a performance with more expressive leaning into notes and phrases, as well as a certain amount of rubato which may or may not find favour. This is an interesting interpretation but remains too interventionist for my taste, and coming back to the Accademia Strumentale Italiana afterwards was something of a relief.
With a spacious recording and a refined, well-considered performance this is an Art of Fugue with a great deal to offer. If forced to choose just one recording of this work then I would still probably grab Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion set (review) above all others, but I will certainly be returning to Alberto Rasi and his Accademia Strumentale Italiana when the mood takes me.
Previous review: Brian Wilson
 I. Fuga simplex rectus BWV1080/1 [3:04]
 II. Fuga simplex inversus BWV1080/3 [2:57]
 III. Fuga plagalis BWV1080/2 [2:48]
 IV. Counter-fugue – fuga inversa BWV1080/5 [3:16]
 V. Fuga rectus with obbligato countersubjects alla Duodecima BWV1080/9 [2:29]
 VI. Fuga inversus with two obbligato countersubjects alla Decima BWV1080/10 [3:47]
 VII. Fuga inversa in Stylo Francese BWV1080/6a [3:34]
 VIII. Fuga inversa per Augment. et Diminut. BWV1080/7 [4:37]
 IX. Canon in Hypodiapason (Canon alla Ottava) BWV1080/15 [2:48]
 X. Fuga a tre Soggetti à 3 BWV1080/8 [7:15]
 XI. Fuga a quattro soggetti à 4 BWV1080/11 [6:38]
 XII. Canon per Augmentationem in contrario motu BWV1080/14 [6:54]
 XIIIa. Mirror fugue in contrappunto simplici à 4 rectus BWV1080/12,1 [2:28]
 XIIIb. Mirror fugue in contrappunto simplici à 4 inversus BWV1080/12,2 [2:25]
 XIVa. Mirror fuga inversa in contrappunto duplici à 3 rectus BWV1080/18,2 [2:18]
 XIVb. Mirror fuga inversa in contrappunto duplici à 3 inversus BWV1080/18,1 [2:21]
 Fuga a 3 Soggetti [unfinished] [8:38]