Bach Art of Fugue

Author: 
Nicholas Anderson
Bach Art of FugueBach Art of Fugue

BACH Art of Fugue

  • (Die) Kunst der Fuge, '(The) Art of Fugue'

This performance of Bach's last great work is undoubtedly for me amongst the brightest of tercentenary constellations. It is the fourth and most satisfying release of The Art of Fugue that has come my way in 1985 and the only one of them played on the harpsichord. I have made out a case, in the course of reviewing other issues, for performing this profound musical and scientific work in a variety of ways because it seems to me that a solo keyboard is perhaps the hardest medium through which a newcomer can become conversant with its intricacies. It is now over 30 years ago that Gustav Leonhardt, in a publication of absorbing interest, concluded that Bach's The Art of Fugue was intended for solo harpsichord. Since then others, too, have arrived at similar conclusions, including Davitt Moroney whose clear and positive reasoning is backed up by a strong technique and thoughtful musical interpretation. The legend, fable and fact surrounding Bach's intentions concerning The art of Fugue are too numerous to discuss here but brief mention must be made of decisions based upon recent researches which affect important aspects of performance.

For example, there is the somewhat contentious issue over what was Bach's intended order of movements. Moroney, convincingly argues for the following sequence: four simple fugues (Contrapunctus 1-4); three inversion fugues (contrapunctus 5-7); four double and triple fugues (Contrapunctus 8-11); two mirror fugues each in rectus and inversus (Contrapunctus 12-13); one unfinished fugue on three subjects (Contrapunctus 14); four canons in ascending order of complexity; one fugue on four subjects, the last of which is the principal theme (Contrupunctus 14, completed by Moroney). By now you will have realized that Bach's own reworkings for two harpsichords of Contrapunctus 13 have been omitted. The reasons are fully explained in the accompanying text but, briefly, Moroney defends his decision on the basis of Bach's own logically-constructed fugue cycle. Two further departures from the scheme listed above occur in the performing sequence of the Contrapuncti. In order to preserve the juxtapositions in Bach's autograph Moroney reverses the positions of Contrapuncti 2 and 3 and places Contrapunctus 8 between Nos. 10 and 11.

It is easier, perhaps, to stress the beauty of Bach's The Art of Fugue in prose than to discover it in performance. Davitt Moroney succeeds in both, successfully avoiding the purely didactic reading which can all too often characterize interpretations of the performer-scholar. He has a mature understanding of the complexity of the work and is therefore able to emphasize the grandeur of Bach's designs and to bring out what is all too often missing—the beauty of the music. There are, of course, details and points of view with which listeners will not be in full agreement; there will be many, I think, who will regret the absence of Bach's two harpsichord arrangements of the three-part mirror fugue (No. 13) if only because they are simply marvellous pieces and as yet seldom performed out of their traditional context. But for me this album is of absorbing interest; a particularly fruitful blend of sensible thinking, fine practical musicianship and an ability to convey aural beauty through an understanding of the shape and proportions which give The Art of Fugue its visual beauty. Exemplary presentation, effective recorded sound and silent pressings only serve to enhance a fine achievement.

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