Hands up all those wondering whether a recording devoted entirely to fugues may have more than a whiff of scholarly seriousness about it. Well, this was a thought that crossed my own mind upon first sight of ‘Fuga magna’, even within the context of its decidedly light-hearted cover portrait, the Armidas presented as a rough-and-tumble of jostling bodies in place of the sharper silhouettes of previous albums.
As it turns out, though, the musical contents are neither academic nor desperately rough and tumble, much as the Armidas aren’t shy of sanding off some of their polish when occasion deserves. Instead what we have here is a warm, loving and perceptive advocacy of the fugue.
The programme begins with the two earliest published German fugues for instrumental ensemble, written by Valentin Haussmann in around 1600. And it must be said that, as far as programme openers go, the Fuga prima is a cracker, tiptoeing cautiously and searchingly into being, before gradually and satisfyingly flowering out yet always retaining its air of almost mystical creation. The Fuga seconda, into which we slide almost imperceptibly, is no less a beauty in its sunnier (albeit still minor) folk-song-based climes.
As this ‘seven-league-boot journey across the realm of fugue’ moves onwards through the centuries, the impression builds of one single continuous arc of musical thought, with the Armidas’ performance style subtly developing along the historical timeline, albeit always with their trademark fresh, incisive tone. So period-aware Scarlatti and Bach, then the Mozart ushering in a sweet-tinged Classical Sturm und Drang, before a new, rougher-edged human bite comes into play as their arc finally touches triumphantly down for Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge. And what a climactic performance this Beethoven is; hardly tamed in its rawness, its barely tonal confusion of voices carrying a slender, Classical beauty of thought which has the effect of linking it right back to everything that has gone before. It’s wonderful stuff. Truly one to both savour and admire.