- Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of the Fugue), for keyboard (or other instruments), BWV 1080
Bach's "Art of Fugue, BWV 1080," left unfinished at his death, is a curious work: it was written out in open score, with no indication of instrumentation, almost as if it were an abstract set of exercises in writing fugues. Yet it is anything but pedagogical; there wasn't another human being alive who could have followed Bach into the arcane realms of counterpoint where he goes here. Various commentators have argued, probably correctly, that Bach had keyboard performance in mind, but there is no question of historical correctness, and the work has been played on everything from saxophones to synthesizers. Even so, this performance by Canada's Les Voix Humaines viol consort may be unique; other performances look forward into more contemporary worlds of instrumental sound, but this one looks backward. The players do not modify their basic sound too much from what they would apply to English viol music of the 17th century, which creates a sound that is hard to judge beyond saying that you're likely to love it or hate it. It's a very odd experience to hear Bach's studious depth filtered through the quintessence of English melancholy, but it does seem to make increasing sense as the performance proceeds. Where Les Voix Humaines departs from the norm is in adding ornamentation to the music. This too has been debated through the years, but it doesn't really work here, perhaps because the ornaments seem inconsistently applied. Queasy sound from a suburban Montreal church is another small disincentive. But in the ongoing discourse of interpretation of "The Art of Fugue," this is an intriguing entry.