Artist: Rachel Podger, Brecon Baroque
Title: J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue, BWV1080
Release Date: 2016
Quality: High-Fidelity DSF Stereo DSD64/2.82MHz
Label: Channel Classics Records
Fugue and the art of counterpoint are often almost bywords for Bach the composer. Certainly, from the viewpoint of many later generations, he was the first composer to make fugue the basis for a whole and complete piece of music, one that often seemed to serve no purpose beyond the ‘purely musical’. In a sense, this must surely be right: while there are countless fugal compositions before Bach, very few share the same relentless, yet expressive, cohesion, and most that were written outside the keyboard sphere were associated with a text and liturgical function. There is something about Bach’s fugal composition that immediately places it at the service of composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Schoenberg. For them, earlier counterpoint in the Renaissance tradition provided more a model for refined technique than for an overriding nexus of musically cohering ideas.
A new recording from violinist Rachel Podger is always worth attention. And before you even get to appreciating the first-class performances—faithful realizations of Bach’s Art of Fugue skillfully arranged for strings—you notice the immediate, vibrant presence of the instruments. The sound is stunning, reminiscent of the early days of digital recording, when listeners used to marvel at how realistic the sound was. Channel Classics has been doing this forever; we just may have forgotten how special it is when it’s done right.
For this recording there are five players who, depending on the context, cover different configurations consisting of violins, violas, cello, and harpsichord. Bach’s manuscripts and their successive incarnations (published with each voice on a separate staff) give us no fair conclusion as to performing medium or order of movements, although most of the work is playable on a keyboard instrument. That hasn’t stopped the proliferation of all manner of “realizations”, from saxophone ensemble to organ to accordion to chamber orchestra.
The choice of instrumentation here makes perfect sense, the delineation of lines, the clarity of texture, and even the expressive aspects of each player’s performance defines an approach to the work that is at once practical and musically captivating. However, no one who hears this rendition should be unaware of other similar, equally successful arrangements, particularly the one by Bernard Labadie and his Les Violons du Roy (see reviews archive), featuring a larger instrumental group and Labadie’s own completion of the final quadruple fugue.
Which brings me to my one huge complaint about this release, completely aside from its excellent performances and demonstration-quality sound: nowhere is there any information about where the transcription of the music comes from. Why can’t this simple but important detail be provided in the otherwise first-rate booklet notes? The notes are by the highly respected scholar and keyboard artist John Butt. Is the arrangement his? Who knows? And no amount of searching online reveals the answer. Great recording; outstanding performances; incomplete documentation. –David Vernier, Classics Today
01 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 1
02 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 3
03 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 2
04 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 4
05 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Canon alla Ottava
06 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 9 ‘alla Duodecima’
07 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 10 ‘alla Decima’
08 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 5
09 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 6 ‘in Stylo Francese’
10 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 7 ‘per Augmentationem alla Terza’
11 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 8, a 3
12 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 11, a 4
13 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Canon alla Duodecime
14 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 12, a 4
15 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Canon alla Decima
16 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 13, a 3
17 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu
18 – The Art of Fugue, BWV1080- Contrapunctus 14