The Art of Fugue: Book AND recording

Martha Cook: L’art de la fugue: une méditation en musique
250pp
Paris: Fayard, 2015
ISBN 978-2-213-68181-8

Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge
Martha Cook harpsichord
73:62 (2 CDs)
Passacaille 1014

The Art of Fugue has long intrigued performers and musicologists alike and much time has been spent seeking to explain its genesis and organization. The question is complicated by differences in layout in the two main sources: Bach’s autograph, which originally had twelve fugues and two canons, and a published version, hastily put together by C. P. E. Bach in 1751, which changed the order and added two further fugues and two canons, plus other pieces. Martha Cook has recently written a book, published in French, in which she proposes that Bach built the cycle around eight verses from Luke’s Gospel, beginning at Chapter 14, Verse 27. These numbers correspond to the gematrial equivalent of J. S. Bach’s name (27+14=41). Cook also noticed that the opening words of Luke 14:27 in German ‘Und wer nicht sein Kreuz trägt und mir nach folgt’ can be made to fit the Art of Fugue’s main theme. Her book expands on all of this and finds rhetorical correspondences between the verses from Luke and successive movements of the Art of Fugue (in its original order) which has led her to accept the plausibility of this theory of origin. While Bach’s deep knowledge of the bible and his interest in numerology are well substantiated, the evidence for a biblical genesis of the Art of Fugue is largely circumstantial and, to my mind at least, not ultimately convincing. Another recent theory, propounded by Loïc Sylvestre and Marco Costa (in Il Saggiatore Musicale  17 (2010), 175-195) and based on bar numbers, suggests that the whole structure is based on the Fibonacci sequence, an intriguing but again circumstantial explanation.

Ultimately it is the music that counts and, while Cook’s theory must have informed her preparation for this recording, there is nothing about her playing or her interpretation which follows directly on from it. Indeed, while the theory would have suggested recording just the autograph version, Cook (while using its order) incorporates the two extra fugues and canons from the print but omits the two mirror fugues; this presents us with an odd hybrid. It is, of course, very unlikely that the Art of Fugue was intended for public performance in one sitting, and listening to it straight through on a single instrument like this can lessen the experience. That said, Cook presents a straightforward interpretation of what she calls the ‘ideal solo harpsichord version’. All the contrapuntal and canonic procedures are very clear in her playing but I find it a bit lacking in expression: the cerebral is emphasised at the expense of the rhetorical or the emotional. She plays a harpsichord by Willem Kroesbergen based on a Johannes Couchet original and uses a temperament reconstituted from an Andreas Silbermann organ of 1719 which works very well. This was clearly a labour of love from Cook and both her book and recording show a deep commitment to the Art of Fugue and its many facets. Both are certainly worth having for their insights into this endlessly fascinating work.

Noel O’Regan


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  • Performance
  • Recorded sound
  • Booklet notes
  • Overall presentation
4.3