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Issue 88
This article was last updated on
22 January, 2001

More Stuff:

To Bach Is To Be Human
A Tribute to the Master


  • Brandenburg Concerti
  • The Orchestral Suites
  • The Harpsichord Concerti
  • Solo Harpsichord Concerti (Levin/Hänssler)
  • Violin & Oboe Concerti
  • Oboe Concerti

  • Cello Suites (Wispelwey)
  • Cello Suites (Yo-Yo Ma)
  • Partitas & Sonatas for Solo Violin (Mela)
  • Partitas & Sonatas for Solo Violin (Podger)
  • Violin Sonatas (Complete) Podger/Pinnock (Channel).

  • Bach Transcribed for Piano (Lauriala)
  • Harpsichord Music by the Young Bach (Hill)
  • Anna Magdelena Notebook 1725. Behringer (Hänssler)
  • Klavierbüchlein for Wilhelm Friedemann Bach. Payne (Hänssler).
  • The Six Partitas (Leonhardt)
  • The Goldberg Variations
  • The Six Partitas (Leonhardt)
  • The Art of Fugue (ALSQ)

  • The Sacred Masterworks (Decca)
  • Sacred Music in Latin (Hänssler)
  • The Motets
  • The Magnificat
  • Mass in B minor
  • St. Matthew Passion
  • St. Matthew Passion (Gardiner/DG)

    For even more Bach reviews, check out the Inkvault!

  • Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

    Die Kunst der Fugue
    (arr. Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet)

    Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet
    Daniel Bruggen · Bertho Driever
    Paul Leehouts · Karel Van Steenhoven

    [73:05] full-price

    by Johann D'Souza

    It's not Y2K, it's Bach Year George Bernard Shaw among others realised the heartfelt quality of Bach's fugal music when he wrote in 1885 as a young music critic,

    "Sebastian Bach could express in fugue or canon all the emotions that have ever been worthily expressed in music. Some of his fugues will be prized for their tenderness and pathos when many a melting sonata and poignant symphonic poem will be shelved forever".

    This rendition of The Art of Fugue is very interesting for many reasons. Not only would one not expect to find a transcription of it for four recorders, but few performances will probably match this one. Likelier transcriptions that may have appeared have been for string quartet, solo instrument or an orchestra.

    Hats off to the full to the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet (ALSQ), who have also made numerous wonderful recordings of different musics, including an unusual arrangement of a Stevie Wonder song. The Quartet mainly concentrates on Renaissance and Baroque period works, as in this recording. The group has assembled a unique collection of over a hundred Renaissance, Baroque and modern recorders ranging from the eight-inch sopranino to the sub-contrabass which measures nine feet. In recent years it has also championed unknown composers such as Moeck Verlag.

    My introduction to this work came in the form of piano versions - those recorded by Tatiana Nikolaeva (Hyperion CDA 66631/2) and Joanna Macgregor (Collins). Both take the opening introduction rather slowly; the ALSQ do so in a likewise manner but due to the difference in instruments the impact is different. When four instruments come together - especially with the unique tone of recorders quite unlike the other woodwinds, one is taken into a new dimension. It is here that I fully understand the true dimension that Bach wants to show to the listener, but no amount of words will substitute actually experiencing this mystical religious experience. I feel that to pay the music justice one simply has to listen to it.

    Leonard Bernstein constantly kept saying that one has to look for the God in Bach's works because all of Bach's life revolved around God. Although he was a noted teacher and composed much of his works for his students, it was God that he was serving and got this divine inspiration directly from. Bernstein points out that Bach was extraordinarily blessed to be touched by the hand of God and this manifested itself in every work, from the miniature Inventions to the monumental Passions.

    The Art of Fugue starts slowly but its ingenuity comes in many forms, from the individual writing to the combination of parts which have to be brought out against the background of the others. This is where the ALSQ excels in this Channel Classics offering. While the work may figure out on a basic musical idea, the genius of Bach is clearly displayed - and he demonstrates why he is the father of the Fugue. Many composers continue to pay Bach tribute by acknowledging the foundations of their compositions in the wealth of his music.

    Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet The arrangement by the ALSQ is itself a good enough reason to entice one to listen to this disc. In particular, you would want to hear their interpretation with regards to dynamics. As expected with Bach and a work of this "scientific" (as opposed to "entertaining") nature, there isn't a wide range of dynamics denoted. However, within this limitation the ALSQ creates many different shades, cleverly emanated from a well thought-out intellectual interpretation. This is especially so in the 3-part fugues where two variations are played straight but the returning variation's theme is inversed. It is here that the subtleties stand out and make this group special.

    Another interesting aspect of this performance is the complete clarity of the voices - this will be greatly admired especially if one is a student of the fugue. The Quartet takes all mirror fugues - which are normally the most difficult to pick out in listening - and instills a slight tempo change, or in some cases adds in a bit of the extra allargando, so that the listener can hear and appreciate the architecture. This is not something one hears frequently in piano performances. Nevertheless, while I did believe that this worked in the opening four fugues, this was a bit overdone towards the last three when things sounded a bit lethargic, slow and dry.

    For this performance, the Quartet indicates that authenticity is not taken in its strictest sense; nevertheless, all salient points regarding polyphony and canon have been strictly adhered to. I believe this to be so because had it not been the case I think the true Bachian spirit would have been lost. Which is not the case in this reading.

    The Art of Fugue is perhaps not really meant to be heard in its entirety (or perhaps that isn't even a consideration at all). That is why few performances occur for concerts. The fugues can be rather heavy in even repetitive (they are but in a very different way). One needs to look at their qualities as compositional structures, evolving new dimensions with each fugue. It is a work for meditation at least for me - I tried it and it really helped me. Another suggestion is to listen to the first twelve fugues first, take a break and then the remaining - this allows me the opportunity to look at them with a fresh perspective.

    The Baroque recorders used here evokes a closeness to the Bachian spirit and the Baroque time. Due to the limitations of the instrument individually speaking, 17 different recorders ranging from the soprano to the great bass are used. There are several places in this work where Bach makes octave transpositions which would not be any problem for a keyboard instrument but would pose many problems for a single recorder. This makes for interesting listening because prior to discovering this fact I did wonder at the huge range these recorders! Bach did not wrote any markings for these works - this leaves tempo and phrasing to the interpreter of the work.

    Many believe that The Art of Fugue was the last work that Bach composed although Tom Koopman, the well-known Bachian exponent, does not believe so. His theory is that Bach was constantly working on many works at any one time and during the last years of his death this was not the only work that he was trying to finish. He still believes that the work may have been completed but the manuscript is lost.

    Many of us, I think, would still like to know how The Art of Fugue would have ended if indeed it was completed. Koopman adds that The Art of Fugue was already displaying signs of 19th century writing, which was also the case with some of the composer's other works at the time. A case for musical scholars to argue about. As always, the last works of a composer seem to have a tendency to give premonitions of death, famous examples being include Mahler's last symphonies and Mozart's Requiem. For The Art of Fugue there is an elusive dimension as well, in that it is uniquely private and very meditative. One has to just listen to the opening theme: so transparently simple, and yet Bach engages all the tricks of his trade, his unparalleled complex writing abilities, to make this such an interesting work all through. It is a pity that no ending exists - or maybe it was meant to be so.

    The Art of Fugue is considered by many a mathematical work of art. Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach describes The Art of Fugue as the "most perfect example of applied fugal technique". In 1774, Kirnberger wrote "the Art of Fugue is more difficult in the entire science of compositions than this, each of the four voices have not only its own fluent melody, but all of them have a uniform character which is maintained so that in their union, a single perfect whole is created".

    I greatly recommend this disc even if you are not a great fan of the recorder which I have to admit I am not. But this is an exceptional recording and your idea of the recorder could well change with it. There are many new areas of the fugue which when played on a single instrument could be lost and this is where four different instruments (or 17 as the case may be) make the Art much more clearer.


  • Bernstein, Leonard. The Joy of Music. Anchor, 1994. ISBN 0-38-547201-3.
  • Bach: The Art of Fugue. CD notes by Tatiana Nikolayeva. Hyperion CDA666311/2


    In Singapore, Channel discs can be purchased (or ordered) from Borders (Wheelock Place) and HMV (The Heeren).

    JOHANN D'SOUZA has just found out that babies behave well when they hear Bach as if there was a hidden message which only they can understand.

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    618: 4.12.1999 © Johann D'Souza

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