Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin plays The Art of Fugue

Saturday, March 19, 2011

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

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Comments [5]

Birgit Matzerath from Maplewood, NJ

The instrumentation and the very "un -academic" way of playing make this gorgeous music very accessible.

Mar. 26 2011 09:08 AM
Ralph from DE

More Copland cowboy songs "El Salon Mexico" ? Yippy Yi Yea!

Mar. 25 2011 09:47 AM
J lester from Pgh PA

To Mr. Melzer,

I have heard the "Ludis Tonalis" but just never made the connection to the WTC. Upon reading your reply it just kinda synched up all of the sudden. Thanks! Now i will enjoy both works more.

Mar. 23 2011 10:47 PM
Michael Meltzer

To J Lester:
Hindemith was certainly of that mindset. Most harmony textbooks are about how to duplicate the contexts of various periods, Hindemith's Traditional Harmony is entirely devoted to the intricacies of voice-leading.
If you haven't heard it, his "Ludus Tonalis" for piano parallels the Well-Tempered Clavier, the 4th-movement fugue of his 3rd piano sonata is a huge Bach tribute, and his three organ sonatas could never have been written without Bach looking over his shoulder.
One day, WQXR will tire of the cowboy songs of Aaron Copland and start exploring some of the real content of the 20th century.

Mar. 23 2011 02:07 AM
j lester from Pgh. PA

After listening to this album, I cannot help but to make the observation that earlier performances of these works must have been a big influence on Paul Hindemith. I hear bits of the "Symphony for Concert Band in b flat." all through these works particularly in track 5. Additionally I hear may of the tonal structures so prevailing in Hindemith's works here. The recording quality is outstanding and the performances are tight and of quality.
Thanks WQXR for another great album of the week.

Mar. 21 2011 08:03 AM

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The Albums of the Week are compelling new recordings that we spotlight every week. These include creative repertoire choices, engaging musical personalities and artistic statements that stand out from the pack. You can hear the Albums of the Week throughout the day and evening on WQXR.

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