Discussions of Bach’s Instrumental Works - No. 6
The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
Francis Browne wrote (June 22, 2002):
The next work scheduled for discussion is BWV 1080, The Art of Fugue.
Don Satz gives a good introduction to the work and perceptive reviews of some recordings at: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/NonVocal/AOF-Part1.htm
More information about the work can be found at: http://pipedreams.mpr.org/articles/artoffugue/index.shtml
When Kirk conducted a poll recently about which work best expressed the essence of Bach, The Art of Fugue was the most popular choice. In some ways this seems surprising : how many more people listen to the Brandenburg concertos and other works of Bach. But for those who take a serius interest in Bach the choice is not in the least surprising : the work is endlessly fascinating and rewarding.
The evidence seems to suggest that Bach intended the work for keyboard, but it has been recorded on various instruments or combinations of instruments. An obvious topic for discussion is :
On what insrument(s) should the Art of Fugue be played?
I have four versions : Moroney (harpsichord); Rosen (piano); ASMIF/Marriner; Musica Antiqua Koeln/Goebel. Which do I prefer ? Whatever one I am listening to! The work is so rich and complex that I value the different insights and perspectives given by the use of different instruments. I think the work would suit the medium of the string quartet and would like to know which version people would recommend. (I would particularly like to know about the Delme Quartet on Hyperion and Robert Simpson's arrangement)
The other topic I suggest for discussion is:
How do you listen to The Art of Fugue?
I cannot believe Bach intended public performance of the complete work , nor have I ever heard one. Nor I must confess have I even listened to one recording all the way through at one time. There is just too much to take in. What I usually do is to listen to one or two fugues repeatedly , sometimes in one recording, sometimes in different recordings. But I am curious about how others approach this work. Are there Bach marathon runners out there, who think nothing of listening to the complete Art of Fugue before breakfast?
Kirk McElhearn wrote (June 22, 2002):
Francis Browne wrote: < On what insrument(s) should the Art of Fugue be played? >
I have a total of 13 recordings of the AoF - from keyboard (harpsichord, piano, organ) to instrumental (various ensembles, viol consort, string quartet). My favorites, in terms of the instruments, are harpsichord, organ, viol consort and the Savall orchestration (that's kind of cheating, because that means I like most of them...). Each of these brings out different elements of the work - the solo harpsichord brings out the subtle counterpoint, whereas the organ highlights the main lines more; the viol consort brings out a texture with the counterpoint, and the Savall orchestration - which is really a variety of different ensembles for the different sections - covers all the bases. But of all these, I think the Savall is the most interesting - partly because his orchestration is very subtle, but also because of the different orchestrations for the different parts.
< How do you listen to The Art of Fugue? >
I generally listen to the whole thing straight through. Which I am going to do right now.
Aryeh Oron wrote (June 22, 2002):
More links to sites about AOF can be seen in the following page of the Bach Cantatas Website: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Links/Links-NonVocal.htm
More reviews by members of the BCML of AOF's recordings can be found in the following page: http://www.bach-cantatas.com/NonVocal/IndexNonVocal5.htm
And now back to the Mondial.
Thomas Radleff wrote (June 22, 2002):
Corresponding with our MD topic, which is actually my greatest passion in the field of music, I´d like to invite all list members to take a look at a brand new page which is completely dedicated to Die Kunst der Fuge. Its main content will be many many reviews (or rather descriptions) of records from my collection, and several essays, pictures, links and anything that is interesting enough. These are only the first steps; the categories of String Quartet and Winds are almost complete; the others are planned to be filled peu à peu during the next months: recordings with harpsichord (or two), organ, piano (or two), chamber ensembles and orchestra, with a sub-category for Scherchen´s recordings, and a collection of "specials".
(Delmé Quartet is already there.)
My way of listening ? An infinite number of ways, as various as the recordings are... some can be taken for marathon listenigs, sometimes only two or three tracks, or just the Canons... for monday mornings, for intellectual research, sensual moments, for any day- or nighttime, for comparing different interpretations... a delightful challenge in any case.
Many booklet comments come to the same conclusion as I have experienced: The KdF must have been written for the CD medium. - No, I´m joking... but have you ever been listening to live concert of the whole thing? On organ? On harpsichord? Even an excellent presentation like the one from the Keller Quartet, that I was lucky to hear two years ago in Vienna... hard stuff. At the end of all discussions about if the AoF has been written for practical use at all, I´m sure it certainly has not been thought as a whole concert piece. (Eggebrecht showed this quite clearly in his books.)
Fortunately, we are free to chose whatever instrumentation we prefer, for every mood and moment (yes, even DKdF can be heard merely with our senses!) and program our own selection.
Take a look and drop your comments... http://www.dkdf.net
Uri Golomb wrote (June 22, 2002):
< The evidence seems to suggest that Bach intended the work for keyboard, but it has been recorded on various instruments or combinations of instruments. An obvious topic for discussion is:
On what insrument(s) should the Art of Fugue be played? >
I am quite convinced by the arguments that the AoF is a keyboard work, but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying quite a wide range of orchestrations. I do not as yet know the ones that were mentioned in the list so far, but I will probably very much enjoy the Savall version, and I will get around to hearing it at some point. I have a piano version (Charles Rosen), a harpsichord version (Leonhardt's second, DHM recording), viol consort (Phantasm/Dreyfus -- incomplete), organ (Helmut Walcha) and orchestrated (Hermann Scherchen, 1964). Of these, my CURRENT favourite is the Scherchen. I say current because such selections do depend on my mood, and I am sure I will "switch alliegiance" back and forth (I like all the above-mentioned recordings); but these days, when I want to listen to the AoF, I usually go for the Scherchen.
It is quite an extraordinary version. The orchstration is Scherchen's own (though partly based on a version by Roger Vuataz, which Schechen recorded c. 1950). At times, it's difficult to believe that the entire performance is by one conductor. Example: Conatrpuntus 1 is performed on winds only, in a relatively fast tempo, and almost strictly uniform dynamics -- it sounds almost STravinskyan. This is immediately followed by Contrapunctus III, performed by a string-dominated orchestra, at a slower tempo, much wider dynamics and much more legato -- almost another world. Thsi sort of alternation continues throughout, which I suppose makes the version more suitable for continuous listening.What IS consistent about it is the clarity of texture and structure. Whatever the orchestration, Scherchen (and the recording engineers) manage to keep all the polyphonic strands wonderfully transparent, and in most fugues one can also sense Scherchen's very keen sense of structure, with a very clear and inevitable-seeming sense of eband-flow and (in some cases) powerful climaxes that, to me, never seem over-done. In short, the performances are almost always strongly analytical and thoughtful, and often enough also very expressive and moving.
I usually find Scherchen somewhat uneven -- but not here; this particular recording is, for me, almost constantly enjoyable and illuminating.
The CD I have is MCA Millenium Classics's Scherchen Edition (MCD 80352); I suspect it's no longer avaialble. On the other hand, DG is currently re-issuing much of Scherchen's WEstminster Legacy, so perhaps they will re-issue it soon.
Incidentally, a new edition of the work is coming out soon, accompanied by a CD played by Davitt Moroney. I do not know whether this will be a re-issue of his Harmonia Mundi recording, or a new recording altogether; but I will probalby buy it, so I'll let you know more when I find out..
Donald Satz wrote (June 22, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] When I listen to the AoF for review purposes, I go with a small number of fugues at one listening. However, the AoF is one of the few works which I listen to straight-through simply for self-enjoyment. The cumulative impact is significant to me.
My preferred instrumentation is for the harpsichord, and the favored artist is Kenneth Gilbert. With the harpsichord, the interplay of voices is most evident. But I also love the work on piano, organ, and on multiple instruments - Savall is my favorite for the 'multiple' category.
Robert Sherman wrote (June 23, 2002):
[To Francis Browne] For non-keyboard I prefer the Canadian Brass. They play magnificently and, since a brass has hetrogenous sounds, the lines are more clearly demarcated than with a string quartet where the sounds are more homogenous.
Thomas Radleff wrote (June 24, 2002):
The legendary date of the AoF´s rebirthing is in summer 1927, when it has been played in Leipzig, in an orchestration by the young AoF-pioneer Wolfgang Graeser. It has been described often as post-romantic, loaded with sentimentality at the end (Choral!) - but has anybody ever heard it, nowadays? Is there a recording of this version?
Also Roger Vuataz´ instrumentation is only available in Scherchen´s Beromünster recording from 1949. Though this one sounds quite fresh, I´d like to know if there is a more recent recording; please let me know...
Vuataz´ version is not bad; the parts are not played throughout by the same instruments, which can be an irritation if you´re not used to it, but it is fascinating to observe the changing colours. Nevertheless, the parts can be followed easily. (In this sense, Webern´s orchestration of the Ricercar à 6 from the MO, of course, treats the original even more liberally.) The instrumentation of the 4 Canons is really beautiful.
For my ears, this is a flaw of Scherchen´s version: the sound implosion in the Canons. The large orchestra is treated in a romantic manner, with great gestures in dynamic and tempo changings. All of this is suddenly reduced to a chamber petitesse when the harpsichord starts with one of the Canons; these elements do not really fit together (and I doubt they ever did, on stage).
Bradley Lehman wrote (June 25, 2002):
Francis Browne wrote: < (...) How do you listen to The Art of Fugue?
I cannot believe Bach intended public performance of the complete work , nor have I ever heard one. Nor I must confess have I even listened to one recording all the way through at one time. There is just too much to take in. What I usually do is to listen to one or two fugues repeatedly, sometimes in one recording, sometimes in different recordings. But I am curious about how others approach this work. Are there Bach marathon runners out there, who think nothing of listening to the complete Art of Fugue before breakfast? >
Being swamped this week with other things, I can't take a lot of time at this...but I'd like to inject reruns of some of my older postings on this topic, since I've said a huge amount about this piece in the past year. They're in the web archives of this group.
A description of my personal experience with the KdF is here:
My opinions about my 13 harpsichord recordings of it are here:
(Since writing that, I also now have van Delft and Moroney on CD, not only on tape.) My favorites remain Hill 1998, Bagger, and Leonhardt 1969...plus I occasionally listen to my own, since those are of course closest to the way I've analyzed the pieces for myself...not to be too narcissistic about it.
I have at least a dozen recordings on one or two pianos; my favorites there are Rosen and MacGregor. Those are described here:
Of another dozen (at least) on organ, my favorite is Tachezi. A message about that is here: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/message/4010
And of about 20 various ensemble recordings (all kinds of combinations!), my favorite is Savall.
On the topic of ensemble transcriptions in general: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/message/3762
And to quote myself about listening to the Art of Fugue vs the more deeply fulfilling experience of playing it:
"The process gave me an appreciation for the people who climb mountains and survive. The euphoria from playing all the way through the Art of Fugue (even the supposedly "unplayable" mirror fugues) in performance is an indescribable feeling. Charles, as you've pointed out: "Wolff and others have even suggested the KdF was Bach's attempt to prove the existence of God, a kind of musical physics investigating pattern and form, and ultimately expected to reveal a higher intelligence at work." The process of studying and playing the piece does give that feeling, yes...an amazing experiential thing. The amount of concentration and commitment required change one into a different person. It might have something to do with "altered states of consciousness," too...music so strong that it causes chemical changes in the brain. Wild stuff.
"That revelatory experience does NOT come across when merely listening to other people play it. (Unfortunately!) This is music to get to know from the inside out: training oneself in the physical, mental, and spiritual techniques and stamina required to play it, knowing what it feels like as it goes by, the brain and the body clicking on interlocked levels. It's good music to listen to, sure, but listening to it or analyzing it on paper is only a small part of knowing it, maybe 25%.
"So, any arguments about "which recordings are best," while interesting, unfortunately miss the point. I'd encourage anyone with any keyboard facility at all: put your time and energy and money into playing this piece, ahead of buying more recordings of it. It's worth it. If you can play even one movement of it (#1 is the best place to start, the easiest one), it's much more fulfilling than listening to other people play it."
Donald Francis Tovey wrote essentially similar things in the 1930s, emphasizing that by far the best way to get to know this work is to play through it oneself at the keyboard, not just analyzing it or listening to performances. He was living in an era where recordings weren't available. But I think that the availability of recordings does not change that assessment; Tovey was right, even though circumstances have changed. We have it so nice now, with so many recordings available...but the best way to know this piece is to play it, at whatever level one is able.
As an aside, I'm reminded of a line from the film "State and Main." One character remarks, "We made our own ." And another one wisely replies with something like, "Yes, of course. It's only 'fun' if you do it yourself. Otherwise it's merely entertainment."
Francis Browne wrote (July 3, 2003):
Thomas Radleff asked: "What happened to our MD topic, our beloved Art of Fugue? Burned in the heat? Drowned in summer lethargy? Forgotten? The MD´s should be choosen according to seasons, sentiments and other changing human factors... "
I agree that there is far more to be said about this marvellous work, and I certainly hope we can return to it in the future. Brad's suggestion that the work needs to be played - at whatever level - to be understood seems irrefutable. In the UK the Associated Board of the Royal Schols of Music (ABRSM) has just published an edition with editorial and performance notes by Richard Jones and a CD of a performance on harpsichord by Davitt Moroney. Their website is: www.abrsmpublishing.co.uk. I shall investigate but would be interested to know if any members of the list have already sampled the edition and recording.
It is no consolation for the end of discusions for Thomas himself, but others will find plenty about the Art of Fugue on his excellent website: http://www.dkdf.net/index.php
If you have not already done so, can I urge you to vote in the current poll about topics for discussion: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/BachRecordings/surveys?id=937114
As always I would be happy to receive suggestions for any future topics for discussion.
Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | AOF - Aldwell | AOF - Alessandrini | AOF - Delft | AOF - MacGregor | AOF - Phantasm | AOF – Scherchen | AOF - Taussig