Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
WORKS: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080
PERFORMER: Fretwork
CATALOGUE NO: HMU 907296
Bach specified no particular instrument for The Art of Fugue. Schweitzer described it as ‘purely theoretical’; for Wilfrid Mellers, it’s ‘an abstract demonstratio of contrapuntal principle… Bach plays to God and himself in an empty church’.

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If we are not simply to tiptoe away and leave him to it, there are compelling arguments for hearing this astonishing collection of 16 fugues and four canons on a keyboard instrument. Gustav Leonhardt’s 15-year-old harpsichord performance (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) remains for me the most convincing in this medium.

For a benchmark among ensemble performances, the options are truly remarkable – from saxophone quartet to full orchestra, with Fretwork’s viols among the least overtly colourful. Yet I was beguiled by the players’ sensitive understatement, their gentle shaping of dynamic rise and fall and the sense of utter commitment shining through their playing. They structure the music with refreshing simplicity, releasing tension in episodes and marking new fugal entries, certainly, but never overloading lines with expressive detail nor gesturing grandly through coda endings.

In the fugues dependent on the purest counterpoint, they create a serene, other-worldly mood – in Contrapunctus 5, for example, with the fugue subject answered upside-down, entries piling up ever closer, and an almost unbroken stream of quavers floating hypnotically through its 90 bars. They readily adopt contrasting characters though – the French Ouverture rhythms of No. 4, the modern Italianate pace and driving bass-line patterns of the double fugue No. 9, galant leaning on appoggiaturas in No. 14.

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It’s a privilege to eavesdrop as Fretwork – technically immaculate and excellently recorded – allows Bach to speak for himself. George Pratt