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Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080

Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge, Part 5

Continue from Part 4

Donald Satz wrote (February 23, 2001):
Before moving on to the 'Great Unfinished Fugue', I should relate that Gilbert is done for the day. His recording, based on manuscript, omits one of the traditional fugues, two canons, and the unfinished fugue. As I indicated in Part 1, I will not rate any recordings downward for movements not presented. However, given Gilbet's decision, his disc would not be a wise choice as your only version or even first version. For folks in that category, I would think that the full work would be preferred.

The Great Unfinished Fugue has been designated a number of titles including 'Fuga a 3 Soggetti'. The 3 refers to three themes; however, none of the three themes is the basic Art of Fugue theme. Current reseach indicates that Bach intended this fugue to be the culmination of the previous fugues and most certainly would have included the motto theme. So, in 'unfinished' form, we have just the three themes. In its 'finished' form, regardless of who actually writes the completion, the motto theme is also introduced. Some recordings only include the unfinshed fugue while others provide both versions. Another interesting aspect of this fugue is that the third theme is sourced from Bach's own name. In German, "BACH" represents the chromatic theme - B flat, A, C, B natural. Bach was a very clever man in addition to having supreme musical skills; he would have been a big winner on The Wheel of Fortune.

Overall, I can't think of a more complex piece of music by Bach than the Great Unfinished Fugue. A superb set of details about its construction is offered in Alain's liner notes; that also goes for the other fugues as well. The complexity of the work combined with its mastery of form, emotional depth mostly of the subtle variety, and melodic passages among the best ever written makes this fugue a marvel of humanity.

Before hitting the different performances, I have a little secret to relate. Although I have not included the new Delme Quartet AOF in my survey (deadline not met), I have been listening in my car to their unfinished and finished versions of the Great Fugue the past few days. It's a wonderful performance. For better or worse, it is also my current standard.

Koroliov's unfinished fugue is very slow at almost 12 minutes in length and he gives a fine performance. It's expressive enough but does not have great momentum and does not bring out all the beauty in the music. Koito, significantly quicker than Koroliov, is better; I prefer her attacks and lyricism. Also, the majesty of the organ is well-suited to this fugue. Koito's only problem is that she gets very messy toward the conclusion. Fagius speeds things up further with an 8 minute performance. I could say that Fagius is highly majestic right from the start, but he unfortunately begins much too loud and overbearing. However, once past the first two minutes or so, the demands of the music catch up with him and the remaining time is a fantastic listening experience.

The ALSQ gives a wonderful performance which is tremendously soothing, and I don't think that's inappropriate for the unfinished fugue. I expected perhaps a twelve minute reading from Savall, but he times in under 9 minutes. Initially, it's all brass/winds for Savall, but then he alternates and also combines them with the stringed instruments. This interpretation is even better than the one from the ALSQ. When the brass are in the picture, the performance radiates majesty, heroism, and spiritual fulfillment. Without the brass, the magic disappears. So there is room for a little improvement that could come from another version.

Could that version be Gould on piano? Yes. With over 12 minutes at his disposal, Gould takes this fugue apart and puts it back together again. And he does not perform this feat in any academic fashion; his is a gorgeous performance as well as completely incisive. I also get a major charge out of his use of staccato and fabulous low voices/bass lines. Alain is every bit as good and even slower than Gould; the majesty of her organ is supreme.

Moroney and Leonhardt bring me back to earth. Each is actually a very fine reading at the level of the Fagius offering. Moroney also provides a finished version that he wrote on his own; he does a great job in remaining true to Bach and using the best that Bach offers. That's smart thinking. I was hoping that Alessandrini would employ a variety of instruments for the unfinished fugue but he decided on a quick-paced consort approach with strings only. I find the results very enjoyable but a little light on variety and depth of expression. I don't think very well of the Keller Quartett's reading. To me, it's dour with some scrappy intonation. Phantasm returns (no mirror fugues or canons) with a performance the equal of Savall's. Their music-making has a swaying property which I can't resist. As soothing as the ALSQ performance, Phantasm is much more incisive.

Hill, less austere than Moroney or Leonhardt, gives my preferred harpsichord performance. He finds the maximum amount of light in the fugue without sacrificing any seriousness of purpose. This is a very lyrical interpretation. Nikolayeva is as slow paced as Gould and Alain, but that's where the important similarities end. They are slow and interesting; she sounds much slower than them and could put anyone, not an insomniac, into a deep sleep. The first three minutes are a total drag, and the first theme only gets marginally better after that; that wonderful accenting of hers just vanishes. Fortunately, her second and third theme get a wake-up call and are very good. MacGregor is very smooth but with excellent accenting and phrasing. It's one hypnotic performance from dream-land. Although it tends to go against the grain of my perception of the music, the interpretation and its execution are just too good to ignore. I'd put MacGregor's version at Savall's high level with just Gould and Alain above.

Odds & Ends

There are just three recordings that fit in to this category. Hill provides early versions of four of the traditional fugues and one of the canons. Although certainly possessing some redundancy, it's very interesting to examine the changes. This is a very nice bonus with Hill's set. MacGregor includes Bach's four-hand version of the second mirror fugue which adds a fourth part to the piece; this is also a nice addition. Koroliov offers two variants for four-hands. I have not given any of these three sets additional favor for the extra music, but I did want readers to be aware of it.

Summary

From my perspective, Kenneth Gilbert's Archiv recording is the essential purchase. Never is he less than excellent, and he's often much better than that. Yes, he doesn't include all the movements, and very regretfully, does not provide the Great Unfinished Fugue. What he does deliver are stunning and crisp performances often of the x-ray variety with great beauty, stature, and depth. Gilbert might be too austere for some listeners; use caution if you think you could be one of them.

I strongly recommend Gould, Koroliov, Nikolayeva, Moroney, Hill, Leonhardt, Alessandrini, and Savall. Whether on organ or piano, you get what you would expect from Gould. For me, that's a very high level of performance, topped off with a fantastic unfinished fugue. Koroliov was right at the top level but fell off some in the latter fugues. Overall, his interpretations are interesting and highly musical. Nikolayeva is generally of slow tempo and strong/expressive nuance. Moroney, like Gilbert, is on the austere side and generally spot-on. Hill's is a more optimistic set of performances and a great alternative to Moroney and Gilbert. Leonhardt's slow but inevitable drives to the finish line constitute his distinctiveness among this group of recordings; when he's at his best, he is the best. Alessandrini has the most variety of instrumentation and usually does very well in matching instrument to music; this is a version which I think a great many would appreciate. Savall offers excellent variety also, is very slow, and has brass to die for.

Remaining Versions:

Alain does provide two wonderful fugues, but my primary conclusion is that she's just slow, very serious, and not abundantly interesting. Koito creates greater interest through her registrations, but they can be bizarre and highly unmusical at times. Fagius is often middle-of- the-road and rather ordinary; others might consider it a fine mainstream version. MacGregor just can't match Koroliov or Nikolayeva; she tends to project softly and her identification with Bach often is lacking.

I was disappointed in the performances of the Keller Quartett which tend toward fast speeds and some deficiency in conveying the beauty and depth of Bach's music. Phantasm is consort approach all the way and can get a little stale at times. The ALSQ is somewhat in a specialized category given the exclusive use of multiple recorders. Although this instrumentation isn't close to my ideal, I can't deny the high quality and often haunting atmosphere in their interpretations; this would be great music for a soft and romantic evening. Also, those who love the recorder should snap up the disc without delay.

As for me, I'm keeping each recording. Every one of them has something remarkable to offer. But what's most remarkable is Bach's Art of Fugue itself. He does have his own basic theme to work with. Although Beethoven had to use a very lame theme in the Diabelli Variations, both works are similar in that they make so much out of so little. It's as if they put one chicken in the oven and dozens come out. That's my idea of magic.

 

Feedback to the Review

Deryk Barker wrote (March 19, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< I remember the Malloch issue being released about ten years ago, but I never did hear it. Is the cd still in print? >
I doubt it. I picked up my copy 2nd hand a few months ago, not quite knowing what to expect.

It's certainly not for purists, but I absolutely love some of the things he did, in paricularl the very fast fugue (8? 9?) veers off to totally unexpected places and makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it.

< Concerning the Saxophone version, I believe that's on MDG and performed by the Colfax something or another. >
There's also a fine version by the Quatuors des Saxophones Nelligan from Quebec on Oratoria ORCD-4106.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 21, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Overall, I can't think of a more complex piece of music by Bach than the Great Unfinished Fugue. (...) I strongly recommend Gould, Koroliov, Nikolayeva, Moroney, Hill, Leonhardt, Alessandrini, and Savall. >
FWIW, on the Gould list (f_minor) in 1997 I wrote a review of this fugue as played by Gould, Koroliov (whose name I misspelled at the time), Rosen, Sokolov, Alexander/Daykin, Bagger, Lagace, and Rubsam.

I selected those for comparison from more than 30 recordings I have of the Art of Fugue. That essay is at: http://www.tug.org/mail-archives/f_minor/msg02168.html

Do you know the earlier Hill recording from 1988, Music and Arts? He plays the early version there, I think more persuasively than Gilbert does. Hill's recent Hanssler remake is also among my favorites.

But listening to the Art of Fugue on any recording always pales beside the experience of playing it for oneself. There's something so tactile about the piece, and there is great satisfaction in solving its fingering puzzles. It's a piece to be played, not just analyzed or listened to....

As an aside to that final fugue, don't miss Busoni's "Fantasia Contrappuntistica" which is a half-hour elaboration of it. It exists in several versions; I think the version for two pianos works best. Tremendously exciting and intense music, packed densely.

Another tidbit: I think the mirror fugues for two keyboards are a yet-unexplored gold mine for the notion of arranging Bach. It's interesting to see Bach take an almost-cubist approach to his own music in creating that transcription...the compositional techniques are quite free. It makes everybody else's (except Webern's and Malloch's) Bach arrangements sound too conservative.

Donald Satz wrote (March 21, 2001):
[To Bradley Lehman] In the lines Brad provides quoting my statements, it looks as if I strongly recommended the Unfinished Fugues of Gould, Koroliov, and a few others. That is not the case. Those cited recommendations were for the AOF, not any one section. The fact is that I did not find Koroliov to have one of the best versions of the Unfinished Fugue. I also did not find Koroliov's Unfinished Fugue to be a "carbon-copy" of Gould's. Yes, they are both slow and share some architectural constructs. But, in comparison to Gould, Koroliov's reading is mundane. If it's a carbon-copy, it's a poor one. Maybe the ink was running dry.

Bradley Lehman wrote (March 21, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< In the lines Brad provides quoting my statements, it looks as if I strongly recommended the Unfinished Fugues of Gould, Koroliov, and a few others. That is not the case. Those cited recommendations were for the AOF, not any one section. >
Yes, I'm sorry that my excerpting changed your meaning. Unintentional! Just trying to save space....

< The fact is that I did not find Koroliov to have one of the best versions of the Unfinished Fugue. I also did not find Koroliov's Unfinished Fugue to be a "carbon-copy" of Gould's. Yes, they are both slow and share some architectural constructs. But, in comparison to Gould, Koroliov's reading is mundane. If it's a carbon-copy, it's a poor one. Maybe the ink was running dry. >
I agree with you that Koroliov is better in the earlier fugues of the set than the last few. And I agree that overall it's one of the best sets on piano. I enjoy listening to Rosen more than Koroliov, though.

Koroliov's tonal coloration, while lovely, ultimately seems artificial to me, and I don't think the music needs that. It has plenty of internal contrast even when played throughout in a single sound (as Hill does on harpsichord, and Rosen on piano)...the composition is full of drama. Of course there are undoubtedly many other listeners who think the Art of Fugue is deadly dull if not given a more colorful registration or orchestration.

Rosen's performance, being understated, lets the listener's imagination participate in the music. Koroliov and (especially) Gould give the piece more of a hard sell...less subtlety.

Ramon Khaloha wrote (April 2, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< Although I don't want to burst any optimism concerning the Delme's recording on Hyperion, I need to point out that, up to this point, I am not as enamored with the other movements as I am with the Unfinished Fugue. However, all my listening has been while driving, and that's not the 100% concentration level needed. Excuses, excuses - I'm loaded with them. >
Having listened to the Delme Qt.'s recording I can say that, for me, it has a fatal flaw: it is transposed from D-minor to G-minor so that it can be played by a regular string quartet. This changes the sound palette of the work and the higher key transposition gives the work (to my ears anyway) an air of levity that I don't want in this work. In this sense, the Juilliard Qt. did much better by comissioning a custom-made viola to play in the D-min. key and also by having the second violin play viola in certain parts, so that the whole work is played as Bach wrote it, without need for transposition.

One good thing to be said about the Delme recording is that it includes Tovey's completion of the unfinished fugue, as well as the unfinished version, on separate tracks.

Another great recording that was recently released is Erich Bergel's with the Cluj Philharmonic (from a live concert in Budapest in 1991). This uses Bergel's own orchestration and completion of the last fugue, which I found to be a tour de force. It's on the Budapest Music Club label. Right up there with Ristenpart for an orchestral version of 'KdF'.

 

Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
AOF - E. Aldwell | AOF - R. Alessandrini | AOF - M.v. Delft | AOF - J. MacGregor | AOF - Phantasm | AOF - H. Scherchen | AOF - P. Taussig
General Discussions:
Part 1 | MD: The Art of Fugue
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
AOF - T. Koopman
Articles:
The Art of Fugue: Expanding the Limits! [E. Demeyere]

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Last update: ęDecember 21, 2006 ę10:33:39