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BACH // The Art of fugue

André Isoir,

André Isoir has recorded the entire organ works of Bach, leaving the Art of Fugue until last.

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His attitude to it – an awe bordering on reverence – does not nevertheless diminish his intellectually acute approach. As a result of much study he has re-assessed the order in which the fugues might be performed, coming up with a version which many will find musically surprising even if musicologically logical: for one thing, the unfinished ‘BACH’ fugue does not form the last movement, but the symbolic fourteenth (B+A+C+H = 14).

His playing is immaculate and truly musical, beautifully phrased and neatly articulated. In the 1982 Grenzing organ (198/2) in St Cyprien’s Abbey (Perigord), he has found a vehicle for this most cerebral of works, an organ with many appropriate features and tonal colours, large enough to possess variety but not so large as to detract through sheer size. If you do not possess a performance there is probably no need to look any further.


  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-1 2’52
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-3 2’40
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-2 2’37
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-4 4’17
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-7 4’26
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-5 3’27
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-6 4’24
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-10 4’38
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-9 2’58
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-8 5’34
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-11 6’25
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-12a (withPierre Farago) 2’15
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-12b (withPierre Farago) 2’08
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-13a 2’16
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-13b 2’21
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-19 8’53
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-16 4’57
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-14 3’56
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-15 4’37
  • Contrapunctus BWV 1080-17 2’50



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.

André Isoir, born at Saint-Dizier, studied music at the École César Franck, where his teachers included Édouard Souberbielle for the organ and Germaine Mounier for the piano. He then entered Rolande Falcinelli’s class at the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris, where in 1960 he was awarded the premier prix for organ and improvisation by unanimous decision of the jury.

He subsequently won a number of international competitions, first St Albans in the UK, where he obtained first prize in 1965, then Haarlem (Holland) where he won three years in a row (1966-67- 68), thus obtaining the ‘Challenge Prize’. He is still today the only Frenchman to have achieved this distinction since the competition was founded in 1951. He has made some sixty recordings, which gained him eight grands prix du Disque between 1972 and 1991, as well as the Prix du Président de la République for his anthology of French organ music ‘Le Livre d’Or de l’Orgue Français’.

André Isoir’s musical culture is complemented by an in-depth knowledge of instrument building; in his opinion this contributes to a more stylish approach to the various repertoires, in terms of both technique and registration.

He is organist emeritus of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés in Paris, Chevalier des Arts et Lettres and Chevalier dans l’Ordre National du Mérite.

“When you go into a church and see those great metal pipes gleaming in the shadows, and then imagine one man making all of that work, you really want to be that man yourself. You have to admit that the organ is an instrument you get attached to.” André Isoir

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