JS Bach: The Art of Fugue

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LABELS: Berlin Classics
WORKS: The Art of Fugue
PERFORMER: Musica Antiqua Köln
CATALOGUE NO: 1675 (PAL system; Stereo; 16: 9 picture format)

For organist Albert Schweitzer, The Art of Fugue was ‘purely theoretical’ while musicologist and composer Wilfrid Mellers saw it as ‘an abstract demonstration of contrapuntal principle… Bach plays to himself in an empty church’. Even performing it has been described as ‘almost a sacrifice’, in which ‘in the end, something is inevitably lost’.
You might think, then, that a performance of Bach’s work would not make for the best viewing on video. Yet being able to see a performance can heighten the musical experience – as here, where the players’ gestures often clarify the music’s structure and texture. As they lean into a motif, and retreat into the texture, the listener’s eye directs the ear towards an understanding of what is going on within the arcane and complex counterpoint. In turn, sheer contrapuntal wizardry begins to spill over from cerebral into emotional appreciation.
Alas, the visual does nothing to enhance the audible in Musica Antiqua Köln’s last ever recording together, (they disbanded in 2007). The photography is virtually divorced from the music. The opening focuses on the steel, glass and concrete of the Langen Foundation building near Düsseldorf, with the string quartet playing the first fugue as a background. Later, vertiginous views from above, slow panning round still images of the players’ heads and, quirkiest of all, slow-motion interpolations unrelated in any way to the sound, combine to distract rather than complement the music.
Switch off the monitor, though, and the string quartet with two harpsichords offer an imaginative performance, including keyboard continuo in two of the fugues. They are enjoyable, if rather persistently intense in dynamics, sonority and the spirit of their delivery.
George Pratt