Bach: The Art of Fugue (arr. Breuer)

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COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Arte Nova
WORKS: The Art of Fugue (arr. Breuer)
PERFORMER: Soloists of Bach Academy Berlin/Heribert Breuer
CATALOGUE NO: 74321 74465 2

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The Art of Fugue continues to exert its fascination, not least because Bach’s failure to specify instrumentation has been seized on by posterity as an excuse to try out all the likely – and unlikely – options. Heribert Breuer has orchestrated the work for four quartets, partly because he believes each quartet’s distinctive instrumental character should enable listeners to analyse the music ‘by ear alone’, and partly because he wanted to create a ‘polystylistic’ version to make clear the music’s ‘timeless character’.

Breuer’s choice of quartets is rather odd: a ‘Musica Antiqua’ group (two recorders, two gambas), a ‘Classical’ string quartet, a ‘Romantic’ wind quartet (oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon) and a ‘Musica Contemporanea’ group supposedly modelled on cool jazz (two pianos, vibraphone, double bass). They may be polystylistic but the results also strike me as a bit of a mess, the line-ups seemingly chosen on simplistic schematic lines to represent Bach’s ‘timeless’ appeal.

Certainly the Musica Contemporanea group, with its jaunty, bounce-along approach, sounds out of place. Nor are the quartets always that easy to tell apart, though sharper playing and a clearer sound would have helped. An Art of Fugue benchmark recording depends on the format you prefer. For a bracing solo harpsichord performance, try Gustav Leonhardt (DHM); for an adventurous yet effective string quartet version, there’s the Keller Quartet (ECM). But Rinaldo Alessandrini and Concerto Italiano (Opus 111), with a felicitous and highly persuasive arrangement for Baroque chamber ensemble, are my personal choice.

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Graham Lock