The number of reviews given here makes another from me superfluous but I should like to take issue with David Bryson's acerbic judgment on the ending of the work.
Essentially, the Art of Fugue is a cerebral exercise which can be produced on most keyboards or combinations of instruments. On the other hand, it's workings can be fully realised from the score without recourse to any instruments at all. Generally speaking, I am in accord with Mr Bryson regarding "emotion" - it has no place in the consideration of this work. Nevertheless, in this particular instance I feel an exception is required in respect of the ending (although it does not concern the music, per se).
I am not a particular fan of this quartet but having enjoyed this disc for several years, I consider that the Emersons play the AoF to perfection on this really excellent DG recording. Bach did not expire across the table during the writing of Contrapunctus XIV but their breaking off to leave it in its unfinished state with the BACH motif seemingly floating in some ghostly finality, to my mind at least, is musically acceptable in an historical sense, emotionally poignant and a thoroughly effective device. Perhaps I might feel differently if I was convinced of the rightness of any of the alternative endings subsequently put forward by others. For me, this version is just fine and I think the empty chairs in the cover photo is a clever allusion - assuming that it is . . .
However, I do agree with Bryson's views of the liner notes; these are unhelpfully pretentious.
Otherwise, this is a first class production; the un-coloured timbre evidently characteristic of the modern instruments used in this recording seems most appropriate.
Bach's "Art of Fugue" occupies an important position in his overall output representing his most structured exploration of counterpoint, one of Bach's key preoccupations. The collection opens with a simple fugue the theme of which is subsequently reworked again and again employing ever more sophisticated contrapuntal devices. This is deep and stiring music with much beauty which relieves the possibility of austerity.
The Art of Fugue is not scored for any stated instrument but fits well on keyboard where almost all of the pieces are playable as written; keyboard versions, therefore predominated in recording. However, the string quartet setting delivers the sense of the music very powerfully and I have to declare myself a fan of this approach though I do play these pieces at the harpsichord myself. The key advantage of the string quartet setting is that each instrument can follow the voice through with optimum phrasing and fluency - somthing that not even the best keyboard player can master given the complex fingering that fugues demand. From a listening point of view therefore I would argue that the quartet is superior. There is also a warmth in the music that is very appealing.
The Emerson Quartet delivers an inspiring and engaging rendition of this important work. Timing, phrasing and touch are exemplary thoughout and the overall impression is of a serene and confident progression through one of the most important pieces of music ever written.
Probably the first thing that needs saying here is that the anonymous performers are none other than the Emerson Quartet. The second thing that needs saying is that while the performance and recording are absolutely top-notch in my estimation, there are two things about this production that I quite strongly dislike. The first is that the big final fugue, believed to have been left unfinished by the dying composer, breaks off abruptly. To me, this is a completely pointless procedure. Either provide a conclusion or leave the piece unplayed altogether. Providing a conclusion here is not like trying to provide a missing last page to a symphony by Shostakovich or even by Haydn, where there would be no way of knowing what final surprises the composer might have in store. If Bach’s Art of Fugue is anything, it is some kind of ultimate in method and logical development. Bach’s own conclusion can’t be determined with complete certainty, but it can be predicted better than in most other works, and if one thing is absolutely certain it’s that Bach did not intend a sudden silence. There is a conclusion by Donald Francis Tovey, there is another used by Davitt Moroney in his eminent harpsichord rendering, and I expect there are numerous others. For anyone who cannot bear to listen to a single note not guaranteed as by Bach, an extra track could be created at the point where his manuscript leaves off, and the rest of us could ignore it and let the music play through to some coherent ending. My other problem is with a liner-note that I find utterly insufferable. Most music-lovers probably want some commentary and guidance in this abstruse and didactic score. What we are offered here is a text that tries to do incompatible things and does them both very badly. Churchill once remarked, on seeing the name Bossom in the list of his new members of parliament ‘That name is neither one thing nor the other’. This liner note is neither one thing nor the other. On the one hand it parades a pretentious ragbag of bogus, irrelevant and distracting pseudo-complexities, and on the other it attempts a talking-down-to colloquial style that I personally find intolerable. Not every music lover is likely to want as much detail as is contained in Tovey’s great Companion to the work, but there is an excellent, instructive and readable short commentary by him in the chamber music volume of his Essays in Musical Analysis. The Emersons give the first 11 numbers in the usual sequence, then one of two versions of the canon by augmentation in contrary motion, then the first pair of mirror fugues, then the other 3 canons, then the second pair of mirror fugues, then the alternative version of the canon by augmentation, followed by the unfinished fugue and the chorale ‘Vor deinen Thron’ by way of conclusion. The style thoughout is severe and serious. The dynamic level is more or less unvarying except for some understandable build-up at the climactic #11 and, more questionably, just before the final lacuna of #14. There is little or nothing by way of ‘expressive’ phrasing, and for that relief much thanks say I. Expressiveness in any ordinary sense is as out of place here as it would be in Newton’s Pricipia Mathematica. Some fugues are as ‘expressive’ as any other kind of music, not only in the Italian tradition of improvised fugues that underlies the fugues of Handel, but sometimes even in the fully worked-out and academic German style of which this composition is the ultimate exemplar. Here I am firmly of the school that believes that any such interpretation is grotesquely out of place. The normal quartet instruments are supplemented where necessary by a tenor viola to provide some low notes below the usual instrument’s reach, the players’ seating is reversed in the mirror fugues, and the quartet members offer some of their own special thoughts on the meaning of the work to them.
The first version of this I bought was the Neville Marriner package on Phillips Duo, teamed with The Musical Offering. In that the mixture of using harpsichord, organ and a combination of strings and woodwind on different tracks irritated me a little and had me wanting to hear all the peices played by strings. As it turns out, I'm now very glad I have both. Hearing it all on the same combination of instruments helped me to realise the value of the variety on the Marriner version. This version is (it goes without saying) wonderfully played and the string quartet format suits the contrapuncti well. Personally I like the sudden end in the last peice. I've heard this music described as being like God thinking. The sudden end to this incredibly ordered but compassionate music reminds me of mortality. It seems to fit, somehow.
I recently spent much time studying three versions of the Art of Fugue, being enough irritated with a harpsichord version that I went out and bought Aimard on piano and the Emerson Quartet doing it on four string instruments. These add to the old vinyls I had from years ago of a chamber orchestral arrangement and the lean, intellectual playing of Charles Rosen on the piano, long out of the catalogue. So now I have five versions, plus the score itself, a fair portion of which I play in my own semi-competent way.
Of the five, I think Aimard and the Emerson win pretty easily.
There’s no doubt that the four string players bring out the individual voice lines far more effectively than could ever be possible on a keyboard, so, in music that is fundamentally and supremely contrapuntal, this really is the answer. The Emerson also do a lovely job of it, although I regret their acquiescing in a sentimental tradition of playing a completely irrelevant chorale at the end. They’re particularly good in the bigger fugues, and bring the unfinished one to its open end really effectively.
But I put Aimard up alongside them because he is so musical. He brings a delightful variety of touch and mood, winning me over especially to some of the canons which I had never taken too seriously – he makes the long slow one sound a counterpart to the transcendent 25th Goldberg variation, which pays a high compliment to the music. He also shapes the conclusions to the fugues handsomely, using precisely paced ritardandi to great effect when Bach himself sometimes falls a little short in preparing for the final bars.
I am unimpressed by Davitt Moroney’s harpsichord version. His instrument is supposed to be made to sound as an eighteenth century harpsichord would have done, but its sound is heavily “in your face” and the lack of variety in its qualities only make me regret once more the pain that the “authentic instruments at all costs” outlook causes. Of course Bach would have been much surprised to hear his music played on a modern grand piano, but for me the objective is to hear creative performance.
Lastly I think the chamber orchestral options are really a bit much. It’s interesting to hear this great series of compositions in so much instrumental colour, but in the end I think it makes for a distraction even allowing for the repetition inherent in the work’s themes. Go for Aimard or the Emerson.
The very best version of this I have ever heard. DG do it again. This explores all the mysticism as well as the purity of the symetry and maths of this piece. Useful information in the booklet and just a very clear and precise recording of one of Bach`s finest and most intense late works. A real 5 for me. I am extremely fond of Bach and this piece and this version. Highly recommended. I can think of no faults with this piece at all. No doubt someone will. I am yet to hear better. It has a wonderfully clear and soaring kind of beauty and clarity to this piece and a great recording.
I am no great expert on this music, but the string quartet in which I play is planning to make its way through it, section by section, and having begun the process, I find it exceedingly fulfilling and satisfying. I bought this highly-regarded CD to have a point of reference for this project, and I find it in every respect beautiful, thoughtful and worthy of the music. The players are expert, the sound is glorious, the approach highly musical and the balance and recording state-of-the-art. As time goes on I'll get to know it and appreciate it more fully and deeply - and I look forward to that - and I have no doubt that this CD will play a valuable part in that process.