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Art of Fugue
Berliner Bach Akademie/Heribert Breuer
Recorded January 2000
ARTE NOVA CLASSICS 74321 74465 2 [Total playing time 70.49]

The Art of Fugue used to have a reputation as being a dry-as-dust academic exercise which the great man set himself in old age. In fact it was regarded as his last work because one of his sons, C. P. E. Bach, wrote on the manuscript at a certain point 'Over this Fugue, where the name BACH is introduced into the counter-subject, the composer died'. Well it may not have been true but it makes for a good story if nothing else. Bach even used to be part of a so-called Fugal Correspondence Society to which members submitted fugues on an agreed theme, for example in 1747 he wrote canonic variations on the chorale Von Himmel hoch, the next year came The Musical Offering, and The Art of Fugue was intended for 1749, although he had begun the exercise a full ten years earlier and added to it during the intervening years.

Though conceived in keyboard terms, and progressing from the most basic fugues to amazingly complex mirror fugues, the work (like many others by Bach rescored by composers from Mozart to Brahms, Schoenberg to Jacques Loussier) is now regarded as game for treatment in any amount of instrumental combinations and groups. Heribert Breuer has opted for four quartets and a solo keyboard instrument. At the start each group introduces itself in each of the four so-called simple fugues, namely a string quartet for the first, a jazz combination for the second of two pianos, vibraphone and double bass, a wind quartet (oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) for the third, and an antique group of two each of recorders and gambas for the fourth. What then follows is too complicated to describe here but is a combination of all instrumental premutations as the counterpoint becomes more complex. Breuer took 25 years to do it, so one can imagine the complexity of the result. It does make for satisfying listening and serves to remind us just how amazing the Art of Fugue is.  

 Christopher Fifield



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