Because it is written in open score, there has been some controversy regarding what instrument Bach's "Art of Fugue" is written for. According to Laurence Dreyfus' extensive and wonderfully informative notes in the cd's booklet, Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, advertised a published version of the "Art of Fugue" as 'expressly arranged for the use of harpsichord or organ.' In reality, while most of the movements are playable by one person at a keyboard, several movements are not. Therefore, there have been many recordings/versions of the Art of Fugue by ensembles, dividing the movements up to be played by various instrumental combinations alternating with solo harpsichord. Their goal is to present the individual lines of music in such a way as to reveal the complexity of the fugues and make them more easily heard and enhance their musicality. To my ears, no one has accomplished this task more successfully than Phantasm in this new recording.
The intellectual value of the Art of Fugue is much discussed. But Phantasm has produced the most beautiful interpretation I have heard to date. I've rarely heard such clarity and energy in a performance of this work. Phantasm plays as a completely unified ensemble; each musician's performance blends perfectly with the others. In an era where I find too many ensembles to be a collection of soloists intent on making their agenda heard, Phantasm's ability to play as a whole is refreshing and exciting. The vitality and interpretive skill they put into what is often considered one of Bach's "dry" works is exceptional, I was capitivated by the entire performance. Perhaps it is the fact they are playing viols that makes this intepretation so clear and musically vibrant. The uniformity of the sound is a perfect palette for presenting the individuality of the melodic lines and the nuances of the counterpoint. For this recording, Phantasm has chosen 12 of the Contrapunti from the Art of Fugue.
In the booklet notes Laurence Dreyfus explains, "We've left out canons and the mirror fugues as they don't seem especially suited to performance on viols and also - dare one say it? - because they do not seem to occupy the same artistic plane as the other works in the collection." A special note: Bach died before finishing the final fugue. Rather than coming up with a self-invented ending (as many ensembles do), Phantasm keeps true to the score and the final fugue simply... stops. The result is emotionally powerful, I was deeply moved by the effect. A few movements of the Art of Fugue may be missed but there is a reward: it has left room on the cd for the inclusion of the rarely (if ever) recorded Mozart arrangements of Bach fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier II. What a treasure! Phantasm approaches these works with the same sensitivity, energy and interpretive consistency. I am excited to have the opportunity to hear these works and Phantasm's including them is truly a milestone.
In my large collection of Bach's music, this cd is included in the list of my favorites.