One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance. Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.
There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra. It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few. In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice. Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.
Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript. In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity. Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision. They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon. As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.
Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer. However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art. Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way. This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.
Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music. The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate. Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work. And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era. Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.