Bringing “The Art of Fugue” from the printed page to life as sound presents many problems for the performer. For a start, what instrument or instruments to use? Although Tovey’s comment that “no rule of counterpoint is kept more meticulously by Bach than the confinement of the part-writing to the stretch of two hands throughout” this has not stopped performances on groups of just about every possible type of instrument, including guitars, saxophones, trombones and recorders, as well as the less flashy but more effective string quartet and viol consort. If multiple instruments are to be used the last has been the most effective group in my experience. There is nonetheless a good case for the use of a single keyboard instrument, generally organ, harpsichord or piano. Whether the result works for the listener as music depends much more on the performer than on the choice of instrument.
Not only does Bach not specify the instrument to be used, he gives no indication of speed, dynamics or phrasing. All of these are up to the performer and the range of solutions is amazing. Whilst some highly respected musicians I have met remain convinced that this is music for the eye rather than the ear, my own experience of listening to a wide range of versions suggests that on the contrary this is a work which gives the performer both freedom and responsibility – far more so than, say, the Brandenburg Concertos, and in the right hands it can come to life as an astonishingly varied and stimulating collection. Even the most unlikely and eccentric performances can shed considerable light on the work, and any listener who has become fascinated by it is likely to want a selection which can be enjoyed in different ways.
The present version may indeed be described without exaggeration as one of the more unlikely and even eccentric ones. It starts almost inaudibly with a curious hesitation in the rhythm of the theme. The latter is usually “brought out” when it appears in the different voices, and dynamics vary, at times alarmingly. Great care is needed with the volume at which you listen to it. Set it too soft and the start cannot be heard; set it too loud and the louder passages sound ugly and forced. The booklet indicates that Ms Boyle stresses the “orchestral” dimensions of the work, thinking of its articulation in terms of violins, trombones, double bass and flute at various times. I would certainly not quarrel with this as an approach and it is good to hear a performance that is above all determined to capture the changing musical character of the work rather than simply to demonstrate the complexity and ingenuity of the fugal writing. It does however to some degree contradict the essential nature of fugue as being a conversation between four (or three) voices of equal importance, and I do find the often relentless emphasis on the fugue subjects as breaking the flow of the music in an unsubtle way.
At the same time, I must note that Ms Boyle produces some very beautiful sounds and textures, and her speeds are well chosen even if not everyone will enjoy the degree of rubato she employs. She plays only the main Contrapunti, including both versions of the two which can be played also upside down ( rectus and inversus ) but excluding the canons and the Fugue for two keyboards. The final, incomplete, Fugue simply stops where the manuscript breaks off. Whether by accident or design the second of the invertible Fugues has the inversus coming before the rectus although the booklet shows them as appearing in the conventional order.
I would certainly not choose this recording if I were to be restricted to a single version of the work, but as a useful contrast or antidote to more severe versions it does have a legitimate place. It may indeed appeal to anyone who has been put off the music previously because of its reputation or unsympathetic performances. I note that the website of one supplier catalogues it under “New Age” and this is surely a very perceptive decision. I remain uncertain as to whether I like it and there are many moments which I find inexplicable, but I cannot deny the beauty and character that is given to the music – rather than extracted from it – at other times. At the right time and in the right mood you may find this irresistible – I can see it becoming a cult version in some circles – but this is very much a recording you should sample before purchase if possible.