George Bernard Shaw among others realised the heartfelt quality
of Bach's fugal music when he wrote in 1885
as a young music critic,
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".
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
Leonard. The Joy of Music. Anchor, 1994. ISBN 0-38-547201-3.
The Art of Fugue. CD notes by Tatiana Nikolayeva. Hyperion
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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4.12.1999 © Johann D'Souza
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