Bach: Art of Fugue

Bach Organ Works Vol. X: Art of Fugue
Margaret Phillips
Richards, Fowkes and Co. organ, 2012
St George’s Hanover Square, London
Regent Records REGCD558
. 2 CDs. 120’58

The Art of Fugue, BWV1080
Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her’, BWV769
The Art of Fugue, Contrapunctus XIV completion by Kevin Korsyn

The final volume of Margaret Phillips’ complete Bach organ works is a version of The Art of Fugue, arranged for organ. I say ‘arranged’ because there is no indication of which instrument Bach intended his monumental work – if, indeed, he ever intended it for performance at all. It was written and published in open-score, with a separate musical stave for each of the four voices. There are no orchestral instruments of the time that could play all the lines on the same instrument, leading to the assumption that it was intended for the harpsichord. Performance on the organ is common, although there are many questions to be considered, not least the choice of registrations.

Margaret Phillips plays the 2012 Richards, Fowkes and Co. organ in St George’s, Hanover Square, London, one of the finest organs in the UK. It was built with an understanding of the 17th and 18th century Dutch and North German organs that Bach would have known in his youth. Of course, the Art of Fugue comes at the other end of Bach’s life, and the organs that he knew in and around Leipzig were very different instruments from the instruments of Buxtehude et al.

The registrations chosen are all appropriate, although there are, of course, many alternative possibilities. Phillips makes a grand start to her interpretation for a large organ from the start, with a powerful 16′ plenum and pedal reeds for the first Contrapunctus. It could equally have been played using a single Principal stop on manuals alone as a way of easing us into the two-hour sound world. In terms of the balance of sound over the first CD, I think I would have preferred this. Such a full registration is not heard again on the first CD, which takes us up to Contrapunctus 13. The two most substantial fugues, numbers 8 and 11, are given strong but relatively restrained registrations but the full organ sound is reserved for the concluding Contrapunctus 14. This is played in two versions – Bach’s incomplete one and the completion by Kevin Korsyn which appears after the Canonic Variations.

One aspect of interpretation that might upset purists is the use of pedals at 16′ pitch. This is entirely justifiable in terms of an organ interpretation, but perhaps questionable in terms of strict counterpoint. There are some clever interpretations, one being Contrapunctus 7 where a 4′ and then a 2′ stop on the pedal is combined with the Great Spielflöte. Contrapunctus 6 In Stile francese is played with a subdued version of the French petit grand jeu with a cornet séparé and the Oboe.

The first CD ends with the inversus version of Contrapunctus 13, played on gentle flutes. CD 2 opens with the four canons before the thundering final Contrapuctus 14, played in the incomplete version of the manuscript. The second CD has more interesting registrations, particularly in the canons. The first combined the Sesquialtera chorus with the Dulcian, set against the oboe in the left hand. The second includes the Vox Humana and the Viola da Gamba, the third contrasts the Nasat with the Dulcian while the fourth canon has what is possibly the sort of registration that Bach would have known in the central Germany organs of his final years with five 8′ stops all sounding together against a single Principal. Filling the gap between the two versions of Contrapunctus 14 are the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, a good choice while we are all in a contrapuntal mood.

Margaret Phillips plays with enviable restraint, avoiding the personal mannerisms that can make live concerts exciting but can so often make recordings difficult for repeat listening. This recording is eminently repeatable, her meticulous sense of articulation and phrasing allowing us to concentrate on Bach’s complex counterpoint without distraction. Preparing and recording the Art of Fugue was a Covid lockdown project for Phillips, and it was time well spent.