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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [76:57]
Accademia Bizantia/Ottavio Dantone (harpsichord)
rec. 2017, Teatro Goldini, Bagnacavallo (RA), Italy DECCA 4832329 [76:57]
I last came across the Accademia Bizantina with their Bach ‘Sinfonia’ CD (review), which is very enjoyable if perhaps not essential listening. The Art of Fugue is a weightier prospect, and with the stylish deep red cover for this release drawing us in I was intrigued as to what would be found within.
The Art of Fugue is written on four staves with no indication as to what instrumentation might be used. Versions have appeared in all kinds of instrumentation, from organ to string quartet, from harpsichord to full orchestra and all kinds of weird and wonderful settings including saxophones and music boxes. My favourite recent recording has been Angela Hewitt’s piano recording on Hyperion (review), but I have to admit there are many attractions to hearing this complex counterpoint played by a carefully selected and expert ensemble. Accademia Bizantina is pared down to just six players for this recording: effectively a string quartet plus keyboards – organ and harpsichord – and not usually all playing at the same time. Contrast is an issue with this extended sequence of fugues and canons, but with harpsichord and organ solos mixed into the pieces played by strings, with or without keyboard support, there is plenty for your ears to enjoy.
I’m not so keen on the occasionally halting rhythmic license taken in the organ solo Contrapunctus 3, but the sound of the instrument has a lovely human quality. Other than this minor comment there are few if any complaints with regard to this version of The Art of Fugue. Ottavio Dantone has an ear for the dramatic, such as with his delayed harpsichord entries in Contrapunctus 4, and the sound is well balanced between strings and keys. You will however hear his instrument wheeled a little closer to the microphones for each solo, as is the organ. This is a minor shift in perspective, but doesn’t help with the illusion of this being a concert. The harpsichord takes part in a duet with organ in Contrapunctus 5 and the plucked strings and pipes work surprisingly well together in the slower piece, less well in the faster Contrapunctus 12, a 4 (Inversus), in which the harpsichord’s intensity dominates and some of Bach’s gestures go somewhat to waste.
The playing is beautiful throughout as you might expect, with acute observation of dotted dance rhythms, no overburdening of the notes with excessive ornamentation but certainly not lacking in expression and animation. The single voice to a part starting-point works well, giving the music a chamber-music intimacy but the projection of the players and subtle reinforcement of the keyboards adding scale without imposing artificial grandeur. The gorgeous, unfinished Fuga a 3 Soggetti remains movingly unfinished, raised tempo and a harpsichord entry in the final few bars really leaving us in wonder as to what might have been. There is no final consolatory chorale prelude.
Comparisons to this sort of arrangement are many and varied, a quality alternative being that with Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque on Channel Classics (review). With harpsichord added as continuo, no organ and fewer solos there is less variety in the sound here, but also less chopping and changing for those who prefer homogeneity and a more consistent approach. Jordi Savall’s recording on Alia Vox is clearly worth seeking out (review). Ottavio Dantone and the Accademia Bizantina“s recording hasn’t shaken my world to its foundations, but is certainly a version I’m glad to have heard, and one I will certainly want to keep for the future.
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