Classical CD Reviews
BACH: The Art of Fugue – Les Voix humaines – ATMA Classique
Published on November 7, 2013
BACH: The Art of Fugue – Les Voix humaines – ATMA Classique ACD2 2645, 72:23 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The 14 sections of Bach’s monumental Art of Fugue have perplexed scholars for years. It’s not written as a technical treatise, despite the baiting of Johann Mattheson challenging “the famous Mr. Bach of Leipzig, who is a great master of fugue” to write some triple fugues in invertible counterpoint, combined in any permutation. Instead Bach took up a project that would occupy him on and off for the last decade of his life, and which he left unfinished, at the worst possible moment if you are one who appreciates the dramatic element in music, which it must be admitted is not as important here as in some of his other pieces.
Nonetheless, when those last bars come to a sudden and abrupt stop, as given here in this performance, one does feel terribly let down and terribly teased. What would he have done here? Several have tried their hands at it, many even believing that Bach was heading towards a quadruple fugue in those last otherworldly pages instead of a triple fugue, but this is purely conjecture. As is, these 14 masterly pieces stand as a monument to the composer’s ability and a demonstration of an old art form that still, in the hands of a genius, had a lot of life left in it.
What Bach didn’t do is specify what instrument or instruments were supposed to play this thing, leading many to suppose that he was creating a piece on a purely theoretical level. Considering this composer’s penchant for recycling and ever-present concerns about performance and remuneration, this seems highly unlikely. He probably would have made it work for several different vehicles when the piece was completed, knowing in advance that a one-hour composition in D-minor and nothing else based on one theme would not attract a lot of attention aside from students and theoreticians, but there can be no doubt that a work that was labored over for ten years was intended to be played.
So along comes Les Voix humaines consort of viols to try their hand at it, and one must call it successful, though an instrument like the organ—which I personally believe is what the composer intended as a performance vehicle—has more color and can add needed dynamic changes and certain volatility to the timbre in a way that viols cannot. The performance is competent to a tee and very professionally executed though I remain unconvinced as to the historical veracity of the idea of viols playing this music. Well, does it even matter? This is Bach after all, and anything always goes! If you like your Bach on the warm and fuzzy side, this one certainly fits the bill, and is as valid as anything else that has come down the pike. If you want adventure, check out the Califax Reed Ensemble on MD&G.