5 de Diapason -
Bach's unfinished Art of Fugue, published for still-debated reasons in open score, has been performed and recorded in dozens of different instrumental versions. But this one, by the veteran Akademie für alte Musik, founded in the former East Berlin, is unique; few others have differentiated the fugues by instrumental forces deployed, and perhaps in none has the overall effect been quite so kaleidoscopic as this one. The rationale for this remains a bit uncertain after perusal of the booklet notes (in German and English); the group members write that, as with other instrumental versions, they aim to "achieve transparent and legible textures," but their "real motivation in tackling the work was the pleasure of plunging together into the structures, harmonic language, and chromatic content of this music, in which an ensemble can make extraordinary discoveries through musical and instrumental confrontations." The Akademie für alte Musik is not a historical instrument group, and there are no claims of any kind for authentic performance. Instead there is a shifting set of forces with a few recurring groups or individual players: a string quartet, a solo keyboardist, small wind groups, various pairs of strings in the canons, and tuttis including the entire ensemble of strings, three oboes in different ranges, bassoon, trombone, and keyboard (either harpsichord or organ). The shifts in instrumentation do not correspond to the work's broad sections (simple fugues, fugues in augmentation, double and triple fugues, and the awesomely complex mirror fugues), and it's hard to find a pattern of any kind. The motivation is murky, but the effect is pleasing if the listener approaches the music in the same sort of freewheeling spirit that the performers seem to have; the incredible concentration demanded by the Art of Fugue, which may or may not have been intended as a work to be performed from start to finish, is replaced by a light sense of anticipation that is extrinsic to the work but not fundamentally alien to it. This is the kind of recording for which sampling will reliably place the potential buyer into the pro or anti group. The sound engineering, a product of Berlin's Teldex Studio, is a major strong point.