Mugged by music

Jerry Sequenza21 recently reported that David Salvage was robbed at gunpoint in Brooklyn, and asks whether anyone else has been mugged recently. Well yes actually, and it wasn't by a gangster with a gun, it was by a new recording. I've had a lot of close encounters with The Art of Fugue over the years. They started with Karl Münchinger's full-on version with the Stuttgarter Kammerorchester (naughty, but still very nice), and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields recording of the edition prepared by Neville Marriner and Andrew Davis. Staying with strings more recent versions from the Emerson Quartet and the viol consort Phantasm have also provided new perspectives. Favourite keyboard versions have included Evgeni Koroliov on the piano (with the following endorsement from György Ligeti no less: '... but if I am allowed only one musical work on my desert island, then I should choose Koroliov's Bach, because forsaken, starving and dying of thirst, I would listen to it right up to my last breath', and André Issoir on the organ of Grenzig de Saint-Cyprien in Perigord.

That's a pretty formidable list of interpretations, can a newcomer really add anything.Well yes - I’ve just been mugged, and knocked clean off my feet, by a new recording that arrived in the post a few days ago. And what makes the mugging all the more remarkable is that the performers are hardly household names. The Art of Fugue is a daunting challenge for any performers. Shortly after Johann Sebastian Bach’s death his son Karl Philip found a bundle of manuscripts containing fugues and cannons. The scores had no title other than the single word 'Contrapunctus', and no directions for instrumentation or tempi, and it appears that Bach passed away while writing the final fugue in the score. This is the ultimate abstract music, and it was probably commissioned by the Society of Musical Sciences of Leipzig.

Before any performance can take place solutions to the missing instrumentation and the incomplete final group of fugues need to be found. In an outstanding collabaration the musicologist and composer Jacques Chailley arrived at an inspired solution arranging the fugues in a binary progression, while the renown trumpeter Pascal Vigneron (above) undertook a new instrumentation using Chailley’s ordering and structure. Chailley postulates that Bach used Pythagorean mathematics to create the two hundreds and eighty-seven different versions (and inversions) of the main re-la-fe motif that make up The Art of Fugue. His analysis concludes that Bach planned to write six groups of four fugues, with each group of four comprising two pairs of rectus and invertus. But of the twenty-four planned fugues only twenty exist, and the last is incomplete.

Pascal Vigneron’s instrumentation is quite remarkable. It uses the organ as the central element, but extends the sonorities using just woodwind and brass. The instruments are used in three groupings; the organ alone, organ and woodwinds, and organ and brass, following Chailley’s groupings of the fugues into three ‘families’. The instrumentalists are drawn from the Ensemble de Cuivres Pascal Vigneron and L’Orchestre de Chambre du Marais, with Pascal Vigneron on trumpet, and with the organ parts shared by Jean Galard and Vigneron.

But let’s cut to the chase. This isn’t a dry, academic exercise in musicology. This is a living, visceral performance which literally mugs the listener with its sonorities and fresh perspective. The recording was made in La cathédrale de St Bernard de Comminges (above) in south-west France which dates from the 12th centurt, and the brass and wind choirs produce a wonderfully burnished sound as they extend the range of the great organ cathedral which dates from 1550 and has three manuals. Great performances can make Bach sound like contemporary music, and this one certainly does just that. But it also points back to the Renaissance. I first heard this magnificent recording on BBC Radio 3, and for a moment thought I was listening to a Gabrielli brass canzona until the appearance of the fateful re-la-fa motif. The mathematical symmetry of the twenty-four fugues is retained by using two double fugues played on positive organs for ‘Contrapunctus’ 21 and 22, with the final fugue concluding with the Choral ‘Von Deinen Thron Tret Ich Hier Mit’.(In front of your throne I will appear) played by trumpet and organ.

It is only July. But this The Art of Fugue must surely be a frontrunner for the best new release of 2006. It is not just a triumph of scholarship and musicianship. The recording from the little known Quantum label is also a technical triumph, and the beautifully realised gatefold packaging, with its colour photography of La Cathedrale de St Bernard de Comminges is living evidence of why, for this music lover at least, the MP3 file will never replace the CD.

Bach wrote on the final page of the manuscript of The Art of Fugue ‘... und einen andern Grundplan’, which translates as ‘... and under another plan’. Perhaps, at last, Pascal Vigneron and Jacques Chailley have revealed that plan. Jacques Chailley died in 1999 age 88.

* Pascal Vigneron's website
* Festival de Comminges
* La Cathédrale de Comminges

* I bought my copy from Amazon Marketplace reseller Avatar Music, the double CD cost £14.93 ($28) plus delivery, it arrived in three days, as have other orders from this source.

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If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Mortal defeat for the mob in Paris and Gentlemen, old Bach is here....


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