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CD reviews

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Die Kunst der Fuge (BWV 1080)

[I] Fabio Bonizzoni, Mariko Uchimura, harpsichord
rec: Sept 2008, Bunnik (NL)
Glossa - GCD P31510 (© 2011) (63'32")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/S
Cover & track-list

[II] Peter Kofler, harpsichord, organ
rec: May 3 - 6, 2010, Nuremberg, Germanisches Nationalmuseum
Raumklang - RK 3004 (© 2010) (77'58")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[III] Bernard Foccroulle, organ
rec: April 2010, Strasbourg, Temple du Bouclier
Ricercar - RIC 303 (2 CDs) (© 2010) (1.35'35")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[IV] Léon Berben, organ
rec: Sept 2010, Angermünde, St Marien
Ramée - RAM 1106 (© 2011) (79'31")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

[V] Sit Fast
rec: [n.d.], Magny-les-Hameaux, Port-Royal des Champs
Eloquentia - EL 1125 (© 2011) (60'45")
Liner-notes: E/F
Cover & track-list

Atsushi Sakaï, Isabelle Saint-Yves, Thomas de Pierrefeu, Josh Cheatham, viola da gamba

[VI] Musica antiqua Köln
Dir: Reinhard Goebel
rec: 2007, Neuss, Langen Foundation (Kunst- und Ausstellungshaus)
Berlin Classics - 0016758BC (© 2011) (c76')
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Reinhard Goebel, violin; Margret Baumgartl, violin, viola; Karlheinz Steeb, viola; Klaus-Dieter Brandt, cello; Léon Berben, Wolfgang Kostujak, harpsichord


Unfinished compositions not only inspire musicologists but also almost beg for myths being woven around them. That is the case with Mozart's Requiem, and Die Kunst der Fuge by Johann Sebastian Bach. It was Bach's son Carl Philipp Emanuel who was responsible for laying the foundation of the mythology around this work in the printing edition of 1751. "On the page where the last fugue [the Fuga a 3 soggetti] breaks off, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach noted that his father had died at the point where the name B-A-C-H enters in the counter-subject" (*). The addition of the chorale arrangement Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit which - according to the preface - was "dictated extempore by the deceased man in his blindness to one of his friends", only added to the mythology.

The work was generally considered one of Bach's last compositions, and some even doubted whether it was intended for actual performance. Musicological research has greatly contributed to dismantling part of the mythology around Die Kunst der Fuge without being able to solve all the riddles. It has been proven that it was already in the 1730s that Bach created some contrapuntal studies which can be considered the first seeds of what was to become Die Kunst der Fuge. "Sometime around 1740, perhaps partly in response to pressure from colleagues and pupils, Bach must hav taken it upon himself to enter upon the risky enterprise of demonstrating to all the world what he could do with a single, cleverly chosen theme" (*). A major portion of the manuscript which is known as P200 was already finished in 1742; "the end of the manuscript has been dated 1746 at the latest" (*). In later years Bach seems to have corrected these first versions.

The question whether Die Kunst der Fuge is really unfinished is still unresolved. In the 1950s Gustav Leonhardt argued that the Fuga a 3 soggetti was not intended as part of the work. If he is right then Die Kunst der Fuge can't be considered unfinished. But there is no unanimity in this matter: all the recordings to be reviewed here include the unfinished fugue, and in his liner-notes Léon Berben writes: "Bach's intention for this piece has remained uncertain: was it a component of the original concept of The Art of Fugue, or part of a completely different work? The arguments for both cases are finely balanced (...)". Leonhardt's statements that the work was intended for performance was confirmed when in 1992 the appeal for subscription turned up, probably written by Carl Philipp Emanuel: "Seeing as each voice is continuously present, and all are equally fully developed, they are each given their own stave and notated in the appropriate clef in the score. Nevertheless, the whole is expressly prepared to be played on both clavier and organ". This subscription appeal also settled another question: for which instrument was Die Kunst der Fuge conceived? Leonhardt argued that it was a harpsichord work. His conclusion turned out to be correct, and can be extended with the organ as an alternative.

Another matter of debate is the order of the pieces. There is a difference between the order in the original manuscript (P200) and the printed edition of 1751. In preparing his recording Fabio Bonizzoni decided to follow the order in the manuscript which also omits several pieces which are present in the printed edition. He argues that "[these] individual pieces are grouped and ordered there and follow a very logical (indeed, a very 'Bachian') criterion, although this was one that the composer had already resolved to modify." The latter makes this decision a little less logical. Moreover, Bonizzoni plays the final known versions of the individual pieces - i.e. those in the printed edition - "in the conviction that the modifications made by Bach can only end up 'improving' the text of the composition". Others take different decisions. In his liner-notes Bernard Foccroulle argues that there is "no evidence that a published playing order should necessarily be the one that is most suitable for public performance (...)". This view seems to be shared by most interpreters as none of the present recordings follows the order as printed in 1751.

Let us have a look at the various recordings. Fabio Bonizzoni is the only one who follows the manuscript P200. It is a bit confusing that the track-list uses the original numbering as well. What is here Contrapunctus 2 is what is called Contrapunctus 3 in other recordings. In order to identify the various pieces one has to look at the BWV numbers; fortunately these are added: Contrapunctus 2 is BWV 1080.3. Bonizzoni plays an instrument by Willem Kroesbergen, and so does Mariko Uchimura in the Contrapuncti 12 and 13. The booklet doesn't inform us about the instrument after which they were copied or about pitch and temperament.
The Fuga a 3 soggetti is performed in a finished version; I assume it is Bonizzoni's own, but the booklet doesn't tell anything about it. It is by far the fastest performance I have heard: it takes 6'19"; in comparison Kofler needs 7'29", Foccroulle 9'09" (unfinished) and 9'29" (finished) respectively, Berben 9'44". There are more pieces with unusual tempi: the Contrapunctus 4 (BWV 1080.5) is pretty fast, whereas Contrapunctus 10 (BWV 1080.8) is rather slow. Bonizzoni doesn't avoid agogics, and now and then he subtly slows down or speeds up the tempo. As one would expect from a Koopman pupil there are quite a lot of ornaments, especially trills. I prefer a little restraint in this matter. But the very fact that he follows the manuscript makes this disc well worth investigating. Moreover his playing is technically brilliant and his interpretation musically compelling.

There is less to enjoy in the recording by Peter Kofler. He plays the pieces in the order of the printing edition, with the exception of the four canons which are inserted between the contrapuncti and before the closing Fuga a 3 soggetti. Kofler plays 13 pieces at the harpsichord, the others at the organ. The liner-notes keep silent about the reasoning for this. The organ is an organo di legno (an organ with wooden pipes), copied after the organ of the Silberne Kapelle of the Hofkirche in Innsbruck. The harpsichord is an original instrument, built in 1782 by Carl August Gräbner, and preserved at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg. It has a strong and penetrating sound, and as Kofler (too) often couples the manuals and the miking is rather close, the result isn't the most pleasant. The bass and the treble are so powerful that the middle voices are sometimes underexposed. I am not impressed by Kofler's interpretation. His playing is too straightforward and often a bit awkward. In the Contrapuncti 12 and 13 he has made use of the modern recording technique to play all the parts. I am strongly opposed to misusing technique for such matters. Imagine opera singers recording duets with themselves ...

Although playing Die Kunst der Fuge at the organ is a legitimate option, as the subscription appeal shows, few organists have included it in their complete recording of Bach's organ works. That is also the case with Bernard Foccroulle. One year after having concluded his Bach edition he recorded Die Kunst der Fuge separately. As I already noted he follows his own order. He has divided the pieces into three sections: first the contrapuncti with a single subject (1-7), then the canons and mirror fugues and lastly the contrapuncti with more than one subject. In the second section the canons and mirror fugues are ordered like a mirror: two canons at the two ends, in the centre the four mirror fugues: 12 rectus, 13 rectus, 13 inversus, 12 inversus. Foccroulle plays the Fuga a 3 soggetti twice: first in its unfinished form, then with his own completion. That is not the only reason he needs two discs whereas Léon Berben needs just one. Foccroulle's tempi are mostly rather moderate: the largest differences are in Contrapunctus 8 (7'18" vs 4'56") and Contrapunctus 11 (7'21" vs 5'20"). The organ is a modern instrument, built in 2007 as a copy of the instrument by Tobias Gottfried Heinrich Trost of 1730 in Waltershausen. He was mainly active in Thuringia, and one of his organs was assessed positively by Bach. The pitch is a=415', the temperament 1/5 meantone.

Léon Berben has chosen the organ of the St. Marien in Angermünde. It was built in 1742-44 by Joachim Wagner, one of the most important organ builders in the northern part of Germany in the first half of the 18th century. The pitch is a=448', the temperament "unequal after Silbermann". The difference between this tuning and that of the organ which Foccroulle plays comes especially to the fore in the Contrapunctus 11 with its frequent chromatic passages and the closing episode of the Fuga a 3 soggetti, which are full of harsh dissonances. The temperament which is most suitable for Bach's keyboard music is a matter of debate among experts. I can't bring light into this matter. It is relevant to note, though, that Bach seems to have been critical about the way Silbermann tuned his organs.
Playing Die Kunst der Fuge at the organ gives the opportunity of making every part clearly audible by way of contrasting registrations. That is particularly evident in Berben's recording whose registration is often more powerful than Foccroulle's and uses a wider range of colours. The latter's approach is more intimate, closer to chamber music. His recording also shows the disadvantage of a performance at the organ. It is the player who needs to make sure that all the voices are clearly audible. Now and then the bass part is underexposed due to a too soft registration.
Whatever the differences between Foccroulle and Berben, they both provide very fine performances on two nice organs. Their differences make for an interesting comparison. They are not a matter of 'right' or 'wrong'; I am glad to have them both.

The two remaining recordings are by instrumental ensembles. More than other keyboard works Die Kunst der Fuge has inspired instrumental ensembles of various line-ups to give their interpretation. A performance with a consort of viols has some logic. In Bach's time this kind of ensemble was completely obsolete; even in England consort music was past history. Therefore performances with a viol consort are anachronistic. That said, the character of Die Kunst der Fuge makes it pre-eminently suitable for such an ensemble. One of the fugue's features is that all the voices are strictly equal, and that is also the hallmark of consort music. Therefore one could argue that musically speaking the best alternative for the keyboard is the consort of viols. Sit Fast chose to record only the four-part pieces. We get here the Contrapuncti 1-11, with the exception of Contrapunctus 8, and the Fuga a 3 soggetti. This is not the first recording by a consort of viols; Fretwork recorded Die Kunst der Fuge complete (Harmonia mundi, 2002). These two interpretations are very different as only the timings show. Contrapunctus 1 takes 4'29" vs 3'09" in Fretwork's performance, in Contrapunctus 4 the difference is even greater: 7'30" vs 3'41". Sit Fast's performance of the Fuga a 3 soggetti is the slowest I have ever heard: 11'32" (Fretwork: 8'28"). I think that these tempi are too slow; as a result the rhythmic pulse doesn't come off that well. In the booklet we read that it "is easy to feel intimidated by a score such as The Art of Fugue. Just think: it is J.S. Bach's final work, his 'testament'". The players perhaps were too intimidated, also due to the conception of the work as Bach's last will and musical testament. On the other hand, the playing is of superior quality, transparent and highly expressive. That is reason enough to recommend it, even to those who have Fretwork's performance on their shelf.

Musica antiqua Köln have chosen a complete different approach. In 1984 Archiv released a recording of Die Kunst der Fuge by the same ensemble. The concept and the scoring is largely the same in this new recording which dates from 2007, one year after the ensemble was disbanded. The pieces are played in three different scorings: strings (either two violins, viola and cello or violin, two violas and cello), sometimes with additional harpsichord, harpsichord solo and two harpsichords. Obviously the mirror fugues are performed with two harpsichords, but so are the canons alla ottava and alla decima, with each player using only one hand. "Through the unavoidable slight 'irregularities' in ensemble between the two players, as well as the difference in sound of the two harpsichords, each voice in the canonic pair acquires a life of its own", Reinhard Goebel wrote in the liner-notes of his 1984 recording. One needs to return to them as the DVD booklet hardly gives any information. In this new recording I didn't notice any real diffence between the harpsichords as they seem to have been made by the same builder. It is their positioning in these two pieces - opposed rather than next to each other, as in the mirror fugues - which separates the voices.
The recording was made in the museum of the Langen Foundation in Neuss. Visually I don't find this venue the most attractive. The acoustic is satisfying for the ensemble pieces; in case of the harpsichord issues I found it a bit too reverberant.
The performance is as one expects from Musica antiqua Köln: a penetrating and brilliant sound, great intensity, sharp articulations and large dynamic contrasts. Thanks to these features the various voices can easily be discerned and their equality is observed. It is a highly colourful and expressive performance.
The pictures are sometimes distracting as they dwell upon the building and the environment. But when the players are in the picture looking at them really helps to notice the progress of the musical discourse. It is always possible, of course, to listen to this DVD as to a CD. The sound quality is excellent.

Probably with the exception of Peter Kofler's performance these recordings are all worthwhile additions to the discography of Bach's masterwork.

(*) Anselm Hartinger in the liner-notes of Glossa GCD P31510

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Léon Berben
Fabio Bonizzoni
Peter Kofler

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