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REVIEW www.musicweb-international, Dominy Clements

  REVIEW www.musicweb-international, Dominy Clements

Die Kunst der Fuge seems to have become one of those works for which a certain section of today’s musicians rub their hands and say, ‘let’s make an arrangement’. I have nothing against a decent ‘working up’ of this music, the score of which is a four-stave affair with no instrumentation given at all, thus inviting all kinds of opportunities for the quartet fraternity - from string to saxophone. One of my favourite ‘authentic’ versions is the lively recording by Reinhard Goebel’s Musica Antiqua Köln on Archiv. This SACD organ recording falls somewhere between the effect of this, and the rather dry 1977 organ version by Herbert Tachezi on Telefunken’s ‘Das Alte Werk’ series - now reissued on Teldec. I still find this latter recording a rather dutiful listen, though it was a pioneering interpretation at the time. My interest in Bengt Tribukait’s recording was partly to see if an organ version of this late masterpiece of J.S. Bach could be made into more than merely an intellectual exercise, and I am pleased to say my hopes have largely been realised. One selling point for this recording is that it is played on an organ from Bach’s time, the 1728 Johan Niclas Cahman organ in the Church of Leufsta Bruk in Sweden. Hans Fagius has contributed an interesting history of the instrument in the booklet, and after the all too common story of neglect and insensitive restoration the organ was finally re-inaugurated in 2006 after having been returned to its original condition as much as possible. The size of the instrument is remarkable given the relative scale of the building in which it is housed. This is a potential problem for recording, as such an instrument would be more familiar in the richer and more generous acoustic of a cathedral. True, the resonance is not huge, but this suits the complexity of the music, and only when played ff does the sound become a little heavy, for instance inContrapunctus VI. Even here the balance is good enough, but my ears felt a little more distance from the mid range and a little more volume of air to help the lower registers would have turned good sound into one amidst ideal circumstances. Returning to the subject of booklet content, we can also read some of Bengt Tribukait’s personal connection to this music, and his ideas on some of the symbolism in Bach’s score. This is an intriguing field, and one which we can only hope not one which is about to be taken too seriously by Dan Brown. Tribukait makes a case for the number symbolism in some of the Contrapuncti, and plays with the idea that the introduction of the B-A-C-H theme is “the composer’s personal confession of his sins.” This may or may not have been the Bach’s intention, but in any case, the ultimate argument is that which brings this fascinating music to life, and Bengt Tribukait’s performance does this very convincingly indeed. Dipping into the tracks from almost a random point, and you might like to sample the delights of Contrapunctus IX, whose running double fugue becomes a playful, almost dancing movement under Tribukait’s fingers. The mellow character of the organ is expressed in the following double fugue Contrapunctus X, where the little chuffing articulations of some of the pipes and colour of their tone are something a like a chorus of human voices. Contrapunctus XI, mentioned as a possible reference to sin or hell in the symbolism of the number II, is given more penetrating registers, the chromatic figures raising tension or being driven home like screws into a coffin. I particularly like the inversus of Contrapunctus XII, and the playing does not disappoint here, with a restrained but effective layering of the expressive melodic material. Tribukait once again shows his ability to create a deliciously light dancing mood on the organ in the gigue rhythm of Contrapunctus XIII, and this mood is extended in a delightful Canon alla ottava. There is plenty of variety in colour in the movements throughout this interpretation of BWV 1080, and I never found myself becoming bored. Tribukait brings the texture down to an almost minimal ppp in the penultimate Canon per augmentionem in contrario motu, creating a special space around the final Fuga a 3 soggetti. This was of course famously left unfinished at the time of Bach’s death, and no attempt has been made to construct an artificial conclusion in this version - we are literally left hanging. The notes of B-A-C-H are left as a potent message in the air, and with no extra chorale to provide a consoling finish this is as striking a statement as one could make in these uncertain times. This is a fine recording of J.S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge and not only ticks all the boxes in terms of authentic instrument and accurate and musical performance, but also goes the extra mile in terms of imagination and colour. The added bonus of SACD is nice, but I found this recording perfectly acceptable in plain stereo. As mentioned before, the space for the recording is not vast, and so the sense of volume isn’t so much increased as enhanced by surround sound, with the feel of the organ as an instrument with power in reserve more obvious. The recording is not so close that there is much leaping around between pipes in disparate locations, though this is no doubt also part of the character of the instrument. I can’t say I know a better version of this piece played on organ, and a warm recommendation is all that remains to be given. Dominy Clements