BACH: The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 – The Roth Quartet/Sir Donald Tovey, piano (conjectural completion of Contrapunctus XIV)
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Bach’s incomplete masterwork Die Kunst der Fuge took root in his mind somewhere around 1745 and consists of nineteen movements based on a relatively simple subject in D Minor. Bach intended to demonstrate his catholic mastery of all sorts of transformational devices – rhythmic, melodic, and harmonic, the progression moving from the relatively simple to the more complex in a series of twenty-four evolutions, the latter of which incorporate Bach’s own name as a counter-subject, written as B-flat-A-C-B-natural. That the last (quadruple) fugue remained unfinished after bar 239 has led to much speculation, including the idea that Bach purposely presented a musical riddle to be solved by future experts or masters of the music’s logical permutations. Theories as far-ranging as Masonic symbolisms and Pythagorean systems have been proffered as “motives” for Bach’s commitment to this work, which embraces numerical mysticism in the course of its total absorption of Western music practice.
The Roth Quartet (1922-1969)–Feri Roth, violin; Jeno Antal, violin; Ferenc Molnar, viola; Janos Scholz, cello–inscribed the Bach work on Columbia shellacs in 1934, and they tended to slow down the tempo at the end of sides, the tempos of which had to be augmented to achieve clean side joins by editor Andrew Rose. That Bach may have originally conceived the work as most suited to the keyboard, especially the harpsichord, has not prevented other solutions to the instrumentation; and here, we have the 1934 arrangement by American composer Roy Harris and Mary D. Herter Norton. Harris excludes those canons and fugues which may not have been intended by Bach for the final version.
Some time ago organ virtuoso Philip Jordan and I discussed, at SUNY Binghamton, The Art of Fugue; and I noted the dire almost monotonously tragic cast of the composition, in spite of its monumental intellectual energies. “Why, Gary, don’t you recognize what Bach has given us here?” parried Jordan. “You have seen the trees, not the forest. What Bach gives us in Der Kunst der Fuge is the world as God first conceived it, and now contemplates in His sadness, what Man has done with it.” So, savor this romantic realization of Bach in small or measured doses, of which Contrapunctus VI for me has a special beauty and serenity of expression. Sir Donald Tovey (1875-1940) performs on the piano from London (1935) to express his own thoughts on the work’s ultimate resolution.
— Gary Lemco