Customer Reviews: Bach: The Art of Fugue / Musical Offering
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on November 20, 2005
Of the five CDs of J.S. Bach's The Art Of The Fugue recently acquired, The Stuttgarter Kammerorchester version is by far the most outstanding. The performance is precise. The two disks are awesome listened to in one sitting. Actually, over and over.

Of the other four sampled, Neville Marriner's version (ASIN B0000041A6) is the weakest. It is good, but lacks the precision and spark of Karl Munchinger's direction. I tend to find Marriner's direction "creamy"; perfect for a piece like Beethoven's Eroica symphony, but not right for this Bach. Also, the mixture of different instruments from piece to piece breaks up the continuity.

The Canadian Brass version (ASIN B0000026NK) is excellent but is difficult to listen to in one sitting unless you love brass. If you want a masterfully conceived and executed version of The Art Of Fugue for your collection or if you really enjoy listening to an hour straight of nothing but brass, this is the CD for you.

The Hans Fagius all organ version (ASIN B00004YYRV) is also excellent, but I personally tend to find the all organ program a bit hard to take in one sitting. Of course, this far more likely historically accurate to Bach's time than the all brass version.

Other reviewers have extolled the Emerson Quartet version of the Fugues (ASIN B00008O8B3). It's really good, but not as good as this one. It's not as precise and rigid. I like the crisp, controlled almost machine produced sound of the Munchinger version.

The Karl Munchinger version is the best for both an introduction to Bach's late Fugues (and other pieces) and for a sublime listening experience. This is one of the best "classical" CDs I have ever heard.
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on July 11, 2001
This is one of the most beautiful versions of the Art of Fugue I have ever heard -- rich, colorful, and extremely musical. This is a must for anyone who wants to hear a full-blooded non-"period" performance.
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on March 28, 2003
I have tons of different recordings of The Art of Fugue, & this one of them all is absolutely my favorite. Each melodic line is very distinct. This is also the best recording of Musical Offering I know. Please get this cd. I think this might in fact be some of the very best recorded Bach available if you ask me. I'm not kidding. It's very heady & more soulful/emotional than you're likely to find in many other interpretations of his music, & without straying from what I think Bach had in mind with his music. Yes, this is what he intended.
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on November 27, 2005
This recording of The Art of Fugue is my all-around favorite.

The premier piece of the set is the final (unfinished) fugue. I place this as the crown of all western music. Three parts of the fugue, out of a theorized four, were completed - but he didn't live to finish it. Some feel that he let it end there on purpose, for some reason. Just before he died, instead of finishing the final fugue, he composed a chorale. If the final fugue represents a journey into the after-life, then this chorale could be thought of as music from the other side, and as the only piece worthy of being played after the final fugue. That chorale is sometimes called "Vor Deinen Thron Tret Ich Hiermit", and is also known as "Wenn wir in Hochsten Noten Sein".

The Art of Fugue was written without scoring - no particular instruments were assigned - so one can find recordings done on the piano (Charles Rosen), harpsichord (Gustav Leonhardt - on vinyl only, I think), chamber orchestra, string orchestra, brass ensemble, organ, etc. My favorite recording of the final fugue is by Arthur Winograd (MGM) on vinyl, but that recording is very scarce.

Other decent recordings that I've heard so far on CD:
The Emerson String Quartet; Deutsche Grammophon B0000908-02 - their versions of the early fugues are quite good.
The Canadian Brass; Sony Essential Classics SBK 89731.
The Keller Quartet (ECM 1652) - some parts work well, others not as well.
Neville Marriner (Phillips 442-556-2) - a bit bland, but good.

Lukas Foss and the Sheffield Ensemble - Quite lively, but very unusual in its orchestration and in its freedom with the notes. Three or four of the pieces are as good as any version I've heard.
One day, quite a while ago, I was walking through the quad of a university and heard one of the fugues being played inside a classroom. I looked in through the window and saw a room full of accordions playing it! True story!
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on June 16, 2005
My first choice, but I am not going to have only one version of this music. Muenchinger's direction gives some of the courtly elegance of traditional Bach-interpretations; oddly enough this courtly elegance is mostly missing on so-called historically informed versions. But the most striking aspect is that this Art of the Fugue & Musical Offering are so emotional, they go straight to my heart. The two productions are wonderful in spite of being from the 60ies and the 70ies, with a clear rendering of the counterpoint. The fact that you also get The Musical Offering makes this a real bargain. Don't hesitate; this classic is not going to be in sale forever.
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on January 30, 2008
Enough has already been said about "The Art of the Fugue." It's a great work and this is a good CD for it. What intrigues me is the "Musical Offering."
What do you do when a tyrannical despot who has essentially created modern Prussia at the point of a gun, with seeming contempt, throws down a challenge to you and everything you stand for and hold dear? Fredrick the Great had Bach hauled (metaphorically, not literally) into his presence so that he could throw a 21 note string melody at him. Fredrick generally despised Bach's music as antiquated and academic. These notes were deliberately put together (according to some - see my review of "Evening in the Palace of Reason") to humiliate him. Bach took the challenge, went away and came back with what is now known as the "Musical Offering." In effect, from top to bottom, from the deliberate inscription in the German language rather than Fredrick's preferred French, it is an "in your face" - "back at ya' " work that eminently satisfies all the rules of music and more importantly, truth. This work is a celebration of order over chaos and is, to my mind, most enjoyable when heard against that background.

I think the first movement is the best. It sums up all the rest and alone would have been sufficient to the challenge. All the rest, although superb, are really just icing on the cake. None of it is music that will set you humming the rest of the day. That is not the point. The power of the movements, the cosmic orbit of counter-point themes in the canons revolving around the challenger's 21 notes, transcend mere melody. This is philosophy in sound, the reproof of error and the despising of mere mortal power, all proclaimed in brilliant composition.

Read "An Evening in the Palace of Reason" or some other work that gives some insight into Bach's life and approach to music and then listen to this work. It always lifts my heart to hear it. The good guy's work is eternal even if the despot got the glory in his life time.
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on December 21, 2004
This is a wonderful recording. Bach is probably my favorite composer, and The Art of Fugue excites the brain, as one tries to follow each instrument. It is a wonderful experience by a wonderful conductor. The music is passionate, precise, and brilliant.
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on August 5, 2006
I bought this version because of the other reviews and I think it was a wise choice! The tempo's are perfect and the music is inspirational!
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on May 21, 2008
After reading Douglas R. Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach", I was inspired to learn more about Bach's "Musical Offering". I bought Dover Publications' sheet music of "The Art of the Fugue and A Musical Offering", H. T. David's "J. S. Bach's Musical Offering: History, Interpretation, and Analysis" (currently out of print), and this CD.

While reading the CD insert, I found the line, "It is unlikely that Bach ever intended this study in canonic technique to be performed as a whole", and I was sorely disappointed. After reading the excellent book by David, I was under no doubt that the work was indeed intended to be performed as a whole, and made perfect sense when performed properly. Also, it is not a study in canonic technique. Bach did that sufficiently in his other works. This was meant to be a study in the forms of music in vogue at that time: Canon, Ricercar, and Sonata.

When I looked at the playlist of "A Musical Offering", I saw that the CD producers truly believed it was never meant to be performed as a whole. There was no rhyme nor reason to the ordering of the tracks, placing the ricercar a 3 first, followed by all 10 canons in random order, followed by the sonata and the ricercar a 6. According to David's convincing arguments, the order ought to be the ricercar a 3, the five canons containing the royal fugue but that don't use it as canonic material, the sonata, the five canons that do use the royal theme as canonic material, and then the ricercar a 6. And, the producers made no effort to try to keep continuity between the sections. The ricercar a 3 was performed on harpsichord, which disjointed it from the rest of the work.

Other than these complaints, the CD is admittedly performed very well. It would be a valuable addition to any Bach library (and, according to other reviews, one of the more valuable additions of these works), but the true Bach enthusiast should keep these things in mind while listening.
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on April 24, 2008
this is not a review of the relative merit of this recording vis-a-vis the merit of other recordings of Bach's Musical Offering. It is a comment on the nature of some of the music (particularly on disc 1) compared with other Bach pieces. I continue to listen to this incredulously and attempt to historically place it in some context with other Bach pieces I am familiar with. It just doesn't jive. Is there any semblance to the melodic baroque of the Brandenburg concertos, or a likeness of complexity to the Passions? I find none. As a matter of fact I wouldn't have been surprised if it had been written in the nineteenth century, or even perhaps, the 20th century. The rampant dissonances and modern turn of musical phrase are truly illustrative of Bach's breadth of imagination.
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