Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin plays The Art of Fugue

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The Art of Fugue is J.S. Bach at his most abstract and cerebral. Unlike the charming and tuneful Brandenburg Concertos or the endlessly poetic Goldberg Variations this is a work so knotty that doctoral dissertations still struggle with it. Yet a new recording by the Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin features arrangements so fresh and unusual that it makes this sometimes inscrutable piece burst with renewed verve. It’s our Album of the Week.

There have been endless arguments about how -- or even if -- The Art of Fugue should be performed. A compendium of 20 increasingly complex fugues and canons all in the same key, Bach composed the work without specifying instrumentation. Usually it's assumed he meant it for a keyboard. Even so, performers have transcribed The Art of Fugue for forces of all kinds, from saxophone quartet to symphony orchestra. This crack Berlin band, led by rotating concertmasters, opts for maximum diversity and contrast, varying the orchestrations from track to track.

Listen, for instance, to how the piquant winds and brass of Contrapunctus 3 arrive like a splash of ice-cold water after the monochromatic solo harpsichord of Contrapunctus 2. Or follow how the ornate layers of detail build up in Contrapunctus 9. Some of the Contrapuncti and Canons are assigned to a quartet of earthy-sounding strings while still others are played by a trio of woodwinds, a solo organ or the full 30-member group.

As the world tips its hat to Bach in this, his 326th birthday week, here’s a chance to get to know an elusive masterpiece in a fresh light.

The Art of Fugue
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin
Harmonia Mundi
Available at Arkivmusic.com