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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuga (The Art of Fugue), BWV1080 (from MS Bach P200, 1742-1750)
Track details after review.
Accademia Strumentale Italiana/Alberto Rasi (treble viol)
rec. Nazareth Church, Verona, Italy, 13 September 2019. DDD.

How many players does it take to perform Bach’s Musical Offering and Die Kunst der Fuge, The Art of Fugue? And in what order should the pieces in both collections be played? In neither case is there a simple answer, but there has to be a minimum of voices in the case of the Art of Fugue, hereafter KdF. Those four voices can be provided by the organ, and that has traditionally tended to be the answer, with very fine performances on that instrument from the likes of Helmut Walcha (DG Original Masters E4776508, download only: Highly Recommended – July 2009. NB: ignore the passionato link; they no longer exist.) That’s a recording which I never want to be without, and it supplements KdF with equally classic accounts of five other Bach organ works. The download, which comes with a digital booklet, costs around £15 in lossless sound; though the stereo dates from 1955, it still sounds well and it remains a benchmark for the finest of traditional Bach. The 1725 Alkmaar organ is one of the best preserved of the period and Walcha clearly enjoys playing it, making his recording much more than an intellectual exercise. (Try track 2, a rocking account of contrapunctus 2.) It can be streamed from Naxos Music Library.

Other very worthwhile performances on the organ include Hans Fagius, recorded in 1999 (BIS-1034). Terry Barfoot, awarding four stars, thought the rewards of this recording considerable – review. Though Fagius takes just three seconds longer than Walcha in contrapunctus 2, I don’t get the impression that he’s loving the music to the same extent; his boat is sailing serenely to its destination, where Walcha’s seems to experiencing a little natural turbulence that suits the music well.

André Isoir on a reissue of a Calliope recording on the Gerhard-Grenzig organ, Saint-Cyprien en Périgord (La Dolce Volta LDV50, mid-price CD, or LDV200, download) gives us a rather grander account of contrapunctus 2, but he, too, gives the impression that he simply enjoys the music.

If it’s KdF on the piano that you seek, look no further than Angela Hewitt on Hyperion (CDA67980, 2 CDs for the price of one). Hewitt’s Bach is the exception to my rule of disliking his music on the piano and her Art of Fugue is almost enough to wean me off Walcha – see DL News 2014/14.

Walcha, Fagius, Isoir and Hewitt play the music as published in the printed editions, though with some rearrangement of the order in some cases, on the rationale for which, see below. Alberto Rasi and his team have returned to the manuscript, where the title is Die Kunst der Fuga, not Fuge, employing the Latin or Italian word. In line with recent academic thinking, the manuscript version is not regarded as an incomplete trial run, but an original version in its own right of the more familiar KdF. As the notes point out, the published edition appeared in something of a hurry, presumably to provide a source of income for Bach’s descendants.

The actual date of the music has always been left open – Malcolm Boyd’s influential book in the Dent Master Musicians series (London 1983, 1990) offers a very wide range, ‘?1742-9’, and Alison Latham’s article in the latest Oxford Companion to Music is equally non-committal – ‘in the 1740s’.

Without getting involved in all the details, which are laid out persuasively in the booklet, the result as recorded here certainly offers a version of KdF which is well worth hearing. Those who know the standard edition well, will find the order of the manuscript and the corresponding number in the printed edition at the end of this review.

Again, without getting bogged down in detail, it has long been thought that the order of the music in the printed edition is ‘increasingly bewildering as the work progresses’ (Boyd, p.202). Why would Bach not follow the simple theme of the first section with its inversion, placed third in the printed edition. Thus, Podger, with Brecon Baroque, and Isoir switch the order of these two sections to make more sense.

Walcha plays these in the published order, but rearranges some of the other material; Isoir goes further and rearranges several sections radically. Jordi Savall on his very fine Alia Vox recording also rearranges several of the pieces – review. Presumably, these performers made the changes based on a feeling of how the music made sense – I can’t be sure because Isoir, whose rearrangement is the most radical, comes as a download without a booklet, so I can’t follow his reasoning. Nor can I understand why the incomplete final fugue (No.18) is renumbered as 19 and placed between 13/2 and 16. Rasi and his team, following the Berlin MS, make even more sense, and do so with the authority of the composer’s autograph.

In both the MS and printed versions, the final fugue is unfinished. It’s best left that way; the practice of completing the work with Bach’s final piece Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthen, supposedly dictated by the composer from his deathbed, is less fashionable these days. It was published with KdF, but doesn’t form part of it, nor does Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich, with which some conclude the work.

You have to be a purist to want to end Turandot incomplete, at the moment where Puccini died in mid flow, but there’s something appropriate about the way in which the final part of KdF breaks off. Isoir’s recording, which radically rearranges the movements, places contrapunctus 17 last, which works well, ending, as Bach’s autograph begins, with a rectus and inversus.

Why not just play the music on the organ, as Walcha and others prove can be done very satisfactorily, or even on the harpsichord, fortepiano or piano? This is not the first recording to use an instrumental ensemble, but it does so employing instruments which could well have been used at the time: violin, treble, tenor and bass viol, violone and organ. The obvious comparison, therefore, is with Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque (Channel Classics CCSSA38316 – review, rather than, say, the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields and Neville Marriner, with Christopher Hogwood (organ), revelatory as their modern-instrument-with-period awareness performances were back in the day (Decca Duo 4425562, with Musical Offering).

Excellent as Podger and her team are – and their recording is available on SACD – there is a clear difference in the instruments employed: violins, violas, cello and harpsichord. I have to admit that the use of the organ, heard in the very opening bars of the new Challenge Classics, seems to me preferable to the harpsichord. And though the use of members of the viol family would have seemed old-fashioned in Bach’s time, as on Jordi Savall’s recording they really work in this music.

The Savall is now download only from most dealers and, since it runs to the equivalent of two discs, somewhat expensive. For once, Hesperion XX don’t exactly bring the house down; in fact, I have sympathy with those who think the tempi just too slow. Even in the opening three short works they tend to take longer than Marriner or Walcha and in two of the longer items, Contrapunctus 8 and Contrapunctus 11 (tracks 8 and 10 on the new recording), at around 8 minutes, they are by some length slowest in the field.

Rasi and Podger tend to be much closer in agreement, though neither can be accused of rushing the music, even by those nurtured on Walcha or Marriner. On track 10 of the new recording, the Fuga a tre soggetti a3, equivalent to Contrapunctus 8, is given almost as much time to establish itself as on the older recordings. Is it a shade too deliberate, especially by comparison with Podger and Brecon Baroque? Deliberate, yes, but not stodgy.

Rachel Podger entrusts track 13, canon duodecima, and track 15, canon decima, to the harpsichord of Marcin Świątkiewicz. The performance of canon duodecima by the full ensemble, is both livelier and somehow more meaningful from Rasi and his team; much as I like Bach’s music on the harpsichord, here it sounds like a voice crying in the wilderness. Nor can it match Luca Guglielmi (organ) in the canon decima on the new Challenge Classics CD.

Predictably, Angela Hewitt on the modern piano on Hyperion gives these two canons more substance than the harpsichord. Like the new Challenge Classics recording, she places those two canons one after the other. I like what I hear, but the new recording scores by varying the two between solo and ensemble. All things considered, the sheer lack of variation inclines me away from recordings of KdF which employ only the piano, harpsichord or clavichord (yes, there is at least one recording on that very intimate instrument) and towards the organ or an instrumental ensemble.

I’ve compared the serene passage of Fagius through contrapunctus 2 with the degree of appropriate rocking that Walcha imparts to the journey. Rasi leaves this section – placed third on the new recording – to the organ solo, so direct comparisons are in order. While I still find that Walcha endears me more than anyone to the music here, Guglielmi on Challenge Classics comes very close; I just wish that we had been told about the organ which he uses, presumably that of Nazareth Church, Verona, where the recording was made. If so, I’d have liked its specification.

Podger, on the other hand, having assigned the two earlier tracks (contrapunctus 1 and 3) to the solo harpsichord, performs contrapunctus 2 with the ensemble and, though they choose a light and airy tempo, considerably faster than Walcha and slightly faster than Guglielmi, the result sounds less as if they are enjoying the music.

Lack of information about the organ apart, the notes in the booklet are excellent; in addition to describing the differences between the MS and printed version of KdF, they contain analysis of Bach’s numerological beliefs. These seem to have been very important to him; he apparently allowed other members to join the learned society der Musicalischen Wissenschaften (musical sciences) before him in order to be the fourteenth, the numerical sum of the letters of his name. I’m less persuaded by the argument that the music in the MS represents the name B-A-C-H, i.e. 2 related works – 1 single piece – 3 related works and 8 related works.

No other recording that I’m aware of employs Bach’s autograph manuscript and – more to the point – far from being an exotic alternative, makes sense of the order of the sections there as opposed to the printed editions. The recording on disc is CD only, whereas Poger on Channel Classics comes on hybrid SACD, but the Challenge Classics recording is very good, and there’s the option of 24-bit for those prepared to pay a little extra. It’s almost worth having for the booklet alone, but the same applies to the Podger recording – both can be found online at Qobuz. Some UK dealers offer the new Challenge Classics as a download only, and not always with the booklet.

One assertion made in Malcolm Boyd’s influential Master Musicians volume can easily be discounted. It’s his belief that the music of Bach’s later period can be appreciated only by following the score and understanding the musical science which underlies the work. It’s perfectly true that, as the new Challenge Classics booklet states, ‘The work is part of Bach’s scientific production and the embodiment of the interest in counterpoint and its artifices: an interest which defined the last decade of his life’, but the performance proves that the music can be appreciated without any recourse to musicology – and it shares that quality with the other recordings which I have mentioned.

By all means follow the score – fortuitously, the autograph version used on this recording can be found free online from and YouTube offer a tutorial on which you can listen to the music and follow the printed score – but do enjoy the music as these performers clearly do, and not just intellectually.

I’ve said that I prefer the greater variety of the organ or an ensemble in this music, which means that I should have to choose Helmut Walcha for my Desert Island. On the other hand, the solo organ sections on the new Challenge Classics recording are almost the equal of Walcha, and there’s the added variety of the instrumental ensemble. The new CD is complete on one disc, whereas Walcha runs to two, albeit with extra music, and his recording can be obtained only as a download. If you are looking for a single-CD organ recording, I think Isoir has the edge on Fagius, as well as a price advantage. Overall, it looks as if Alberto Rasi and his Accademia will also feature in my future listening, presenting the music as it appears in autograph and making a strong case for it.

Brian Wilson

[1] I. Fuga simplex rectus BWV1080/1 [3:04]
[2] II. Fuga simplex inversus BWV1080/3 [2:57]
[3] III. Fuga plagalis BWV1080/2 [2:48]
[4] IV. Counter-fugue – fuga inversa BWV1080/5 [3:16]
[5] V. Fuga rectus with obbligato countersubjects alla Duodecima BWV1080/9 [2:29]
[6] VI. Fuga inversus with two obbligato countersubjects alla Decima BWV1080/10 [3:47]
[7] VII. Fuga inversa in Stylo Francese BWV1080/6a [3:34]
[8] VIII. Fuga inversa per Augment. et Diminut. BWV1080/7 [4:37]
[9] IX. Canon in Hypodiapason (Canon alla Ottava) BWV1080/15 [2:48]
[10] X. Fuga a tre Soggetti à 3 BWV1080/8 [7:15]
[11] XI. Fuga a quattro soggetti à 4 BWV1080/11 [6:38]
[12] XII. Canon per Augmentationem in contrario motu BWV1080/14 [6:54]
[13] XIIIa. Mirror fugue in contrappunto simplici à 4 rectus BWV1080/12,1 [2:28]
[14] XIIIb. Mirror fugue in contrappunto simplici à 4 inversus BWV1080/12,2 [2:25]
[15] XIVa. Mirror fuga inversa in contrappunto duplici à 3 rectus BWV1080/18,2 [2:18]
[16] XIVb. Mirror fuga inversa in contrappunto duplici à 3 inversus BWV1080/18,1 [2:21]
[17] Fuga a 3 Soggetti [unfinished] [8:38]



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