Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge

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LABELS: Hanssler
WORKS: Die Kunst der Fuge
PERFORMER: Robert Hill, Michael Behringer (harpsichord)
The Art of Fugue remains a mystery. Bach specified no instrumentation; Schweitzer described it as ‘purely theoretical’; no composer has ever matched its contrapuntal ingenuity, or the unfulfilled promise of the final four-subject fugue tailing away, incomplete, at Bachdeath. At first sight, Hill’s seems an archival rather than a concert performance. He includes five earlier sketches; he plays throughout on the same registration of an Italian harpsichord, a choice justified with ingenious arguments in an otherwise limited booklet. His playing is impressively neat – Bach only just kept within the limits of two hands on a keyboard. Hill contrasts the meditative archaic movements with the Italianate verve of Bach’s contemporary style, notably in the dazzling mirror fugues (three lines which prove to create invertible counterpoint even when they themselves are turned upside-down – what a mind!). When Behringer joins Hill for the duet version, they play faster, egging each other on with contagious excitement. The rich sound of two unison registers remains strikingly transparent, a tribute to both good engineering and the shallow-bellied Italian instrument. I found an hour-and-a-half of D minor and a single timbre competed well with my benchmark, Leonhardt, recorded with more tonal variety all of 30 years ago. Yet so vast is the panorama of this extraordinary work that it merits several benchmarks: I surprised myself recently by commending highly the anachronistic sound of the Keller Quartet (ECM 457 849-2) – though I would not admit it to my nearest friends – and I delight equally in the Amsterdam Bach Soloists’ palette of modern instruments (Ottavo OTR C48503). George Pratt