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Review Die Kunst der Fuge American Organist

Review Die Kunst der Fuge American Organist

The American Organist, May 2010
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: DIE KUNST DER FUGE. Bengt Tribukait, organist. Cahman organ, Church of Leufsta Bruk, Sweden. Musica Rediviva MRSACD-O1 7.

No other musical composition is anything like J.S. Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. It embodies the epitome of both thematic development and contrapuntal ingenuity. Throughout its 20 movements, we see the unlimited imagination of perhaps the greatest musical mind of all time fashioning an ordinary melodic idea into a veritable universe of musical possibilities. Two important aspects of the work further characterize it as being in class by itself: Bach did not specify a medium of performance for it, and he left the final movement, a quadruple fugue including a subject based on the letters of his own name, unfinished at the time of his death. Bengt Tribukait, performing on the 1728 Cahman organ at Leufsta Bruk, surpasses all expectations in his new recording of this unique masterpiece. He overcomes the logistical challenges of the various textures with great facility, especially in the many instances where the writing is not particularly idiomatic for keyboard or pedals. The 28stop instrument, reinaugurated in June 2006 after its most recent, complete restoration, is an ideal choice for Tribukait’s two-manual and pedal adaptation of the many fugues and canons of Die Kunst der Fuge. Its beautiful voiced palette of foundations, mixtures, mutations, and reeds serves perfectly in realizing the seemingly infinite array of the work’s contrapuntal combinations. Those with absolute pitch will recognize that the Cahman organ is tuned a half step higher, with A at 465. Research indicates that all Cahman organs are tuned this way. The sharp tuning takes a little getting used to, but in no way detracts from a most exhilarating listening experience. It should be noted that the Cahman organ does not have manual-to-pedal couplers, thus placing limitations on both registration and the use of the pedals. Also noteworthy – and typical of its period – is the presence of quint stops on all three divisions, and the inclusion of tierces in all the mixtures. In the case of the Pedal division, the quint is at 5%’ pitch. There are two fundamental considerations in setting Die Kunst der Fuge for organ solo. First, it must be decided to what extent the pedalboard is to be used. Unlike (1) the organ fugues, of which the subjects, countersubjects and other material were designed specifically with the pedals in mind, and (2) the fugues of the Well-tempered Clavier, in which all voices must be played by the two hands, the fugues of Die Kunst der Fuge are not set up so that the use of the Pedal is readily apparent. Second, registration in Die Kunst der Fuge is entirely up to the organist, but, not unlike the organ ftigues, is best determined by the structural organization of each fugue. Tribukait has found the perfect resolution of both of these issues. He employs the Pedal in seven of the fugues and plays the remaining nine fugues and canons on the manuals alone. This decision was evidently based on two factors: the spacing of the voices and their rhythmic and melodic contours. In regard to registration, Tribukait demonstrates outstanding musicianship in his wide range of color choices, utilizing unique combinations for each of the movements. Particularly striking are Contrapunctus III, played on the 8’ Principal alone, Contrapunctus V, played on the 4’ Flute of the Ruckpositiv, Contrapunctus IX, in which both 4’ stops of the Ruckpositiv are heard in unison, and the final “Fuga a 3 Soggetti” in which the plenum, including quints and reeds, is heard in full splendor. Many performers consider tempo to be within the realm of personal preference. This is perhaps especially the case in music for which a specific tempo indication is not given by the composer. Much of the repertoire up to the time of Bach falls into this category, and with Bach, tempo markings are more the exception than the norm. With no tempo indication, the performer must rely on the character, mood, and texture of the music, but more importantly, the meter signature. For Die Kunst der Fuge, no tempo markings appear in the autograph, yet Bach is precise in his designation of a variety of meter signatures. Twelve of the movements are in “cut” time (2/2), four are in “common” time(4/4), two are in 3/2, one is in 9/16, and the remaining movement has a double meter signature, namely, common time and12/8. Tribukait possesses a natural sense of tempo throughout the performance, playing each piece at what feels like its inevitable pace. His observance of the meter signatures and their deeper meaning supports the notion that Bach would have had a specific tempo in mind for each of his own works. Tribukait’s performance exemplifies a number of other rhythmic virtues as well: apparent dotted rhythms are properly executed as triplets (certain editions erroneously place the 16th note of the dotted eight-16th figure too far to the right in triplet environments), silences are strictly observed, entrances are subtly announced, and rubato is applied effectively but never excessively. Consistent with the excellence of his playing, every voice crossing is crystal clear, and the ensemble is impeccable. James L Base The American Organist, May 2010