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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [105:51]
Samuel Kummer (organ)
rec. 2020, St. Wenzel Church, Naumberg, Germany
AEOLUS AE11291 SACD [48:00 + 57:51]

The Art of Fugue, J. S. Bach’s final masterpiece, is considered one of the most demanding, profound and intellectual keyboard works of all time. Left unfinished at the time of his death, it’s for unspecified instrumentation. Versions in the catalogue include performances on the harpsichord, piano, string quartet, orchestra and, as in this recording, on the organ. Bach took a single principal subject, from which he composed fourteen fugues and four canons. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff sums it up perfectly when he states: "The governing idea of the work was an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject."
 
If you were wondering, there are two supplements, which account for the extended time of the recording. It’s a tragedy that Bach died before completing the apogee of his compositional career, with the final fugue breaking off mid-flight and suspended in time. As compensation, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel appended the Chorale Prelude BWV668a: Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein, prior to publication, supposedly dictated by the composer on his deathbed. Kummar performs this after Fuga a 3 Soggetti. This is followed by ‘Fuga a 4 Soggetti’, Kummar’s own completion of Fuga a 3 Soggetti.
 
It’s a pity, that in some quarters, the Art of Fugue has gained the reputation for being a dry academic exercise and, indeed, there was a time when I avoided it. Not so now, I’ve come to appreciate its glories. Samuel Kummer dusts it down and counters its reputation as being a purely didactic work. There’s never a dull moment in this performance, which revels in imagination and flair, bringing the music to life. He understands the music, its architecture and structure. The result is a performance musically satisfying and free of metronomic constraints.
 
I like the organ as a choice of instrument. The king of instruments was the composer’s instrument. Kummer takes great care, as the music progresses and the registrations become more imposing, to maintain clarity at all times in the contrapuntal lines. Never did I hear definition lost at any time throughout. He revels in the textures of the denser fugues, such as Contrapunctus 11 a 4, emphasizing the more subtle lines. Registration choices show ingenuity and resourcefulness. In short, Kummer displays a great maturity of vision.
 
A word or two about the organ seems appropriate. St Wenzel’s Church, Naumburg boasts the largest instrument made by the master organ builder Zacharias Hildebrandt. Both Johann Sebastian Bach and Gottfried Silbermann approved the organ and it holds the distinction of being the largest organ in existence personally played by Bach. It’s a magnificent instrument, one of gleaming splendour. Not only is it powerful, burnished and rich as in the Contrapunctus 11 a 4, which ends SACD 1, but it’s also capable of achieving ethereal and mysterious sonorities as in Contrapunctus 3 and 5. The booklet gives the registrations Kummar has chosen for each fugue, plus there’s an overall registration plan of the instrument. The accompanying booklet is exemplary.
 
Stephen Greenbank



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