JS Bach: The Art of Fugue performed by Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: JS Bach
LABELS: Channel CCS
ALBUM TITLE: JS Bach
WORKS: The Art of Fugue
PERFORMER: Rachel Podger (violin); Brecon Baroque
CATALOGUE NO: CCS SA 38316 (hybrid CD/SACD)

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Listening to 14 fugues, all on the same subject, instrumentation unspecified, with no markings of dynamics or expression may seem an esoteric exercise. Add four canons, the structure of one defying aural perception – the lower part is the upperpart backwards – and it appears more abstruse. Even distinguished performers question it: Albert Schweitzer described it as ‘purely theoretical’; Wilfrid Mellers as ‘an abstract demonstration of contrapuntal principle’. Even that master practitioner, John Butt, admits in his liner notes that one option is ‘just a soundless reading by the highly trained musician’. 

Equally, though, such uncertainty opens the flood-gates for innumerable performance options, none more persuasive than this string quartet (second violin conveniently doubling on viola) and harpsichord continuo, reflecting the stylistic state of play when Bach wrote the work. Brecon Baroque are intensely sensitive, introducing nuances of phrasing, dynamic rise and fall, flexible moments of tempo, a virtually vibrato-less tone yet with a warmth and life which transcends the minimal, dry notation. This is clear from the start, an unassuming, simply-worked fugue. There are times when they could have drawn more contrast. Had harpsichord continuo been more prominent, Contrapunctus IV could evoke the exuberance of a ‘modern’ late-Baroque sonata movement, while IX has all the potential energy of a full-blown Italianate concerto-style allegro. The harpsichord, a warm-toned copy of a mid-17th century Ruckers instrument, takes responsibility alone for two of the canons, an effective timbral contrast to strings. Though Bach’s own optional harpsichord parts for the invertible fugue XIII are omitted, the off-string vitality is uplifting.

A fine middle-of-the-way offering, highly commended.

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George Pratt