At last I've found a recording that does some justice to the Art of Fugue. Dating from the 1970s, Marriner's approach (switching between orchestra, quartet, harpsichord & organ) enables this difficult, extraordinary work to shine in all its infinite variety. For once the fuguey bits are really fuguey, unlike on the solo piano recording & string quartet versions I listened to recently. I'd not heard the "Musical Offering" before, but was thoroughly seduced by this beautiful, elegant performance. Harpsichord & organ are the other "Art of Fugue" options I intend to explore - can anyone out there advise me? I feel I'm missing out on one of the most highly regarded musical works!
I do agree with the other reviwers, very fine stuff, but.... it slightly irritates me that the instruments used for individual peices vary between ensemble and solo. Some are played by the wonderful combination of strings and woodwind (my favourite - the textures complement the music so well), others solo harpsichord and others again solo organ. This is a small(and probably very personal)niggle, but it's useful to know befor you buy! In spite of this , I'd still reccomend it.
As is well known, Bach specified no instrumentation for what James Gaines - "Evening in the Palace of Reason" - calls one of "the most sublime reaches of learned counterpoint", along with the "Goldberg Variations", "Variations on Vom Himmel hoch", and The Musical Offering. Wanting to get to know this music better, I bought two versions, of which this was one. I think one of the reasons why I found this the recording of choice was the fact that Sir Neville Marriner and Andrew Davis have arranged each Contrapunctus for different instrumental groups, or soloists. This provides a range of musical colour which performances for string quartet or viols, for example, cannot. This is not so much a weakness in other settings, merely an admission of the shortccomings of this listener. I can now see why the likes of Frederick the Great turned against Bach: he IS difficult listening; Telemann is not. But I know with whom I would choose to spend the evening!
These two works are arguably the capstone of all of Bach's works. The Art of Fugue encapsulates everything that he wanted to say about the science (and indeed mathematics) of the creation of musical forms. The work is rigidly structured, yet diverse; it's studious, yet an entertainment. This version (there exist quite a number) is in 22 "movements", each of which has its own taxonomic classification, all of which are based around a simple yet compelling theme. Variations on that theme include turning it upside down, playing backwards and inside out (I exaggerate minimally) and pitting it against itself in several voices. And as a work of entertainment, it works as well as it does as a scholarly treatise. Apocryphal tales abound concerning the fact that he hid his name (the legendary 4 notes B-A-C-H) in the final movement, and at that moment breathed his last. The truth is more mundane than that, but the fact remains that this is an unfinished work, which the performers here respectfully leave unfinished, tailing off at the exact point that the score does. Which is all to the good, in my opinion, as somehow it seems to work better like that than if someone had come along and finished it off for him. Originally, it was not specified for what instruments The Art of Fugue was intended, so anyone interpreting it has been given a free hand. That applies with a vengeance to the ensemble who has put this little lot together - and it's an arrangement that works very well. You've got harpsichord, organ, string quartet, chamber ensemble, the lot - and each one sounds as though it *ought* to be the way it is. Don't ask me to explain - go ahead and listen to it and appreciate it. As for the Musical Offering, it comes from very much the same sort of direction, but seems to have been written more for the purpose of others, as opposed to being written, like The Art of Fugue, for himself. Of the two works, it's not as intellectually satisfying, but from the aesthetic standpoint it's easier to appreciate without a degree in mathematics. The only other work of Bach's that I have experienced that remotely resembles these is the Goldberg Variations. I would be interested to hear of anything else he wrote that's so finely structured like this. Finally, I have to mention that the price is in keeping with that of the others of this series, which has proven repeatedly that cheap does not mean nasty. Look out for these DUO editions, as they are like as not a worthwhile addition to your collection.
I had this as a tape in the early 1980s, then as a CD now on my kindle. This is the one album I return to over and over again. It is exquisite. As close to the music of the spheres as the human mind can embrace.