Bach: The Art of Fugue / Musical Offering
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Bach, J.S.: The Art of Fugue; A Musical Offering (2 CDs)
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There are many apocryphal stories in the classical-music world, but the one in which Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention is true, and The Musical Offering was, after a period of further reflection, the result. As with all the works of Bach's later years, the work is both great art and a "teaching piece," which shows everything that he thought could be done with the king's theme. The Trio Sonata based on the theme is the only major piece of chamber music from Bach's last decades in Leipzig, and that makes the work and essential cornerstone of any Bach collection. This performance, led by Neville Marriner, is both polished and lively, and very well recorded. At a "twofer" price, coupled with The Art of Fugue, it's the preferred version of the work on modern instruments. --David Hurwitz
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As Bach did not document the scoring for The Art of Fugue, performances range from solo keyboard instruments (organ, harpsichord, piano) to string quartet to wind ensemble to brass arrangements to full orchestra to whatever. But what about this varied orchestral performance by the ASMF? I think other reviewers made a good conclusion: it is a solid CD to "sample" the various instrument combinations that are possible for this fugal giant of a composition. While purists may perhaps find this variery of scoring on this CD here overly accomodating to keep the music "more interesting," it probably is an advantage for the listener new to the music or for those who just like variety sometimes. Personally, I liked the approach here with the wide variety of sounds and textures of the harpsichord, organ, string quartet, flutes and full orchestra. The sound quality on this CD is very good - full bodied with an attractive resonance but without losing clarity of the individual voices.
Some may cite a lack of emotional quality as a weakness of Marriner's conducting here. This can be heard at times but mostly only when comparing to another orchestra. But overall the music is quite good and should please most. Penguin Guide gave this set a top 3/3 stars citing both "a style of playing that is profoundly satisfying with finely judged tempi, unmannered phrasing and resilient rhythms ... though some of the playing is a trifle bland." Well said I think and not an over-endorsement or under-endorsement.
For an orchestral performance with more passionate and emotive undertones, look to the Stuttgart Orchestra conducted by Munchinger - a fine recording that also gets high marks. That set contains the same two works and is quite wonderful to hear with more complex sonorities and more artful building of the fugal inter-twining. Just compare the first two clips and you will see how the ASMF version is more "unmannered" while the Munchinger/Stuttgart CO performance breathes much more emmotional drama into the music. Other performaces to consider are: The Emerson, Delme or Keller String Quartets and the Stardust (wind) Quartet - the latter who play on recorders of varying sizes and depth of tone that sound together not unlike the pipes of an organ. But, for a wide variety of sound, the Marriner set here is quite nice. Regardless of what performance you like the most, enjoy this legendary music.
This is absolute music, composed without any specific instrument in mind. The Offering and the Art of Fugue have been equally successfully performed on the organ, harpsichord, piano, and by string ensemble. The ASMF succeeds in presenting them in ALL of these contexts, except the piano.
The performance is first-rate, if a little reserved.
UPDATE: Since I originally posted this review, I have listened to the ASMF recording many, many more times. It occurs to me that I originally gave this disc a 4-star review because it is performed on mostly modern instruments which lack the bite of baroque instruments. Yet, performed on period instruments, modern instruments, piano, harpsichord, organ or what have you, this really is an extraordinary composition. Marriner et. al. more than rise to the occasion. Consequently, I have revised my review to 5-stars.
In his last years, J.S. Bach wrote much of his music for the sheer joy of creating mathematically delightful pieces, hence the endless variations and inversions of the themes from "Art of the Fugue" and "Musical Offering." Some evidence suggests that J.S.B. didn't care too much whether or not the music was, in fact, performed. I think he would be struck by this performance, especially, of the 6-part ricercar - one of the most complex and repeatedly listenable compositions ever put to paper by man.
This is not necessarily a collection of music that bears constant listening to from start to finish as if it were a number of movements of a larger piece. Pick and chose your diamonds from the drawer, and leave a few for another day.
He demonstrates repeatedly his ability to not only express extremely difficult compositions to play, but at the same time delightful sounds to captivate the listener.
Especially attractive is Contrapunctus 4, and all that have the organ.
The Musical Offering of history fame is well presented here, with fine harpsichord, finished off by a grand riercar.
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