- Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue), for keyboard (or other instruments), BWV 1080
Harpsichordist Martha Cook here records Bach's "Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (The Art of the Fugue)," with a specific interpretive framework in mind. The work, Cook believes, was devotional and intimate in intent; it is, she writes, a "musical prayer," and it embodies the parables and exhortation found in the biblical Book of Luke, 14:27-35. Interested readers are invited to consult the booklet for more details. Making the supposition work involves discarding the version of the work published after Bach's death by C.P.E. Bach and others, and it also involves some of the numerology that so often seems to crop up in connection with Bach's larger works. There's some justification in earlier German music for regarding Bach's instrumental music in this programmatic way; Bach would have known the "Biblische Historien" keyboard sonatas of 1700 by one of his key predecessors, Johann Kuhnau. But what's missing is any evidence of why Bach, by the end of his life a revered figure, might have wanted to embed secret messages in "Die Kunst der Fuge." The unalloyed good news is that you can disregard the stated method of interpretation and listen to the performance in the abstract. It's very powerful. Cook, playing a modern copy of a meaty Couchet family instrument, delivers a performance that, whatever it may mean, seems to be straining toward something beyond abstract fugal structure. She shapes phrases strongly through behind-the-beat playing that ranges from slight to extreme, and as a result, the left-hand parts have unusually sharp profiles. The whole thing does come out with a kind of devotional grandeur that evokes Bach's religious masterpieces, and the later fugues back off on the expressive quality and reach a quietly mystical plane. An impressive "Art of the Fugue," even if you don't buy its basic argument.