There was a time when scholarship was not even certain what instrument or combination thereof the Art of the Fugue was written for, or if it wasn’t written for any specific instrument at all and a purely theoretical exercise instead. The latter certainly fits the romantic image of Bach: a huge work written for theory, for the inner beauty of the ear, for its possibilities, to exist as a Platonic ideal… and the last work of his, to boot; dying mid-fugue. Transcendence inclusive!
Bach would have answered this – this I know with all the certainty that making hypothetical speculations about people removed from us by a quarter millennium – by whatever the 1750-Saxon equivalent of “Malarkey!” would have been. “I vrote it for ze keyboard, dummy.” Gustav Leonhardt made that point early and convincingly and it’s been since widely accepted.
Thank goodness for the confusion, though! This has made the Art of the Fugue the subject of much speculation and experimentation – a baroque sandbox, and given it the kind of attention that such a stern study in counterpoint might otherwise not have received. And it gave artists the license to experiment with instrumental combinations that would – had the source material been all clear – have seemed willful, met with nose-wrinkling disapproval from the purist keepers of the flame, and might never have been undertaken. This way, however, we can enjoy the Art of the Fugue in numerous versions.
Now André Isoir’s Bach in general and his Art of the Fugue (separately) has been re-issued by the dreamy-wonderful, luxurious packaged, splendidly annotating La Dolce Volta label. It’s so good to see an old favorite back (it has had every French classical music magazine award thrown at it in its lifetime, for whatever that’s worth) – and better-looking than ever. But of course it’s not just the looks of this re-mastered re-issue (it comes mid-price packaged with the 2015 La Dolce Volta catalogue, which is a cutely old fashioned marketing ploy I used to make great advantage of in my student days, hoping for particularly coveted records to become more affordable thusly). It is Isoir’s way with this still fairly elusive and austere music of Bach’s that makes it such a happy re-release.
Isoir has that je ne sais quoi that I’m trying to pin down in Bach, but can’t ever quite. It’s a sense of greatness, of finality, of something bigger than myself (actually, almost any Bach performance does this)… It’s that which makes Bach the greatest composer and many an atheist’s Ersatz-G_d. And that is what I am getting here. The steady pacing – that rather rigorous underlying pulse – never gets boring; instead it gently accumulates energy. Without doing anything wild or wayward, Isoir propels me and gives me a sense of that Bachian perpetuum mobile. His partner in this is the 1982 Gerhard Grenzing organ of the Église Saint-Cyprien in the Dordogne with its handsome-yet-unassuming character. I like André Isoir’s Bach in general, but there are a few organists that I prefer. But here and in his disc of Bach Sinfonias, Sonates & Concertos, there is no organist I like better.