Bach: The Art of Fugue

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Opus
WORKS: The Art of Fugue
PERFORMER: Concerto Italiano/Rinaldo Alessandrini
CATALOGUE NO: OPS 30-191
In his preface to the 1752 edition of The Art of Fugue, music theorist FW Marpurg wrote that ‘in this work are contained the most hidden beauties possible in the art of music’. Much of the ensuing debate about the work, which Bach left unfinished and without specifying instrumentation, has concerned how best to make that beauty manifest.

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Though Bach almost certainly intended the work for keyboards (and here the benchmark is Gustav Leonhardt’s 1969 DHM recording), less idiomatic instrumentation can work well: I keenly second George Pratt’s commendation of the Keller String Quartet version (ECM), but the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet’s attempt to render The Art of Fugue on recorders is less persuasive. Though they’ve used period instruments, the fact that they’ve employed 17 different recorders, some specially adapted, and have still had to omit two canons as ‘unplayable’ makes it clear that their instrumentation is not best suited to this music. Avid recorder enthusiasts may disagree, but I found the soprano’s tone unpleasantly piercing, while the softer timbres of the other instruments often made individual lines hard to follow.

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Rinaldo Alesandrini opts instead for a tonal palette that Bach himself favoured in many other compositions – oboes, flute, bassoon, strings and harpsichord continuo. He deftly varies the instruments from fugue to fugue, and performs the canons on harpsichord alone. It’s a sensible reading that falls easy on the ear, though the occasionally edgy, staccato tempos are less pleasing, especially when compared to the Keller Quartet’s imaginative choices. Graham Lock