Supertrain Records is proud to announce the release of Stefano Greco’s new recording of J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Bach’s masterpiece of masterpieces, is a complete and thorough representation of the expressive possibilities of fugues. Greco, in tandem with video’s released online, presents Bach’s journey through the form. With Greco as our guide, through his incredibly sensitive poetic playing, every note is accounted for and infused with meaning and complete understanding. It is Bach understood, internalized, and performed as never before. This approach to interpretation is unlike anyone else’s and imbues the performance with a sense of music unfurling, being created, in real time.
J.S. Bach. The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
J.S. BACH AND THE ART OF FUGUE
Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest composer of contrapuntal music who ever lived.
His many outstanding abilities included the remarkable capacity to compose complex masterpieces in short periods of time, which today require years of study for professional musicians (who, even after studying such works for years, are often mesmerized by the discovery of new details that unveil astounding complexity and artistry). Although J.S. Bach had a large family, it could be argued that he lived a lonely life, blessed by that prominent depth of mind which was hardly reckoned at his time.
Bach’s dynamicity and limitless artistic mind went hand in hand with his consistent composition. Imagine the genius; Cantor of the St. Thomas School in Lepzig, “the leading cantorate in Protestant Germany” (C. Wolff, Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 p. 253), a prolific composer of nearly 200 cantatas, the Well-Tempered Clavier and a number of unsurpassed chefs-d’oeuvre, deciding at last to compose the culmination of his
life’s work. Imagine a man who, out of loneliness, set out during the last part of his life to leave a legacy, a sort of ‘message in a bottle’ for future musical minds to explore and understand. A work without commission; an act of faith. A mission; a letter to God and to the future.
The piece demanded meticulous work by the composer. Much more articulated and profound than anything else he wrote, it had to summarize Bach’s artistic legacy and that is why it took 10 years to be finished even for the greatest composers of all times. That is why this work was named “Die Kunst der Fuga” (as it is on the only surviving manuscript, the Mus. ms. autogr. P 200 in the Berlin State Library), i.e. The Art of Fugue. The fact that this work was not intended to be performed at the time is the reason why The Art of Fugue sounds timeless, almost like contemporary
music rather than baroque.
MY ENCOUNTER AND MY RESEARCH
As a young musician, when I discovered the existence of The Art of Fugue, I was immediately struck by its mysterious sonorities. Sensing that the piece itself was imbued with hidden complexities that required more experience and knowledge, I postponed my study until a later time, when I could be more prepared to take on the challenge. Then, years later, I immersed myself into the sphere of this work. I dedicated months of my time to copies of the score, almost to the point of being obsessed by it, until I started noticing symmetries and architectures that were hidden by the modern editions yet confirmed by the manuscript. A significant point of interest to me was the order of the pieces that compose the Art of Fugue; these were mixed up in the first edition, so that Contrapunctus BWV 1080.10 was published twice with different names as both the 10th and 14th iteration in the same score. Yet, once taken off the repeated fugue, the following publications kept this same erroneous order.
Understanding a book about a complex subject is not easy; it becomes extremely challenging if the words or the chapters of the book are mixed up. Thus, in my opinion it was crucial to understand the correct order of the pieces that make up the Art of Fugue.
After months of analyzing each Contrapunctus, I found that, in the manuscript, all the pieces that constitute the work are connected to each other like the rings of a chain, recalling each other using evolving repeated themes or fragments. Every fugue represents the evolution of the previous one, and the anticipation of the next. Since the first edition appeared years after the manuscript was made, it contained more pieces. Consequently, I needed to study the new contrapuncti to
understand how to connect them to the previous ones and reconstruct the order of the whole work.
LOOKING FOR BACH’S INSPIRATION
After obtaining an ulterior order that seemed more logical to me, I discovered that Bach had found inspiration for the Art of Fugue from a book that had been published in 1650 by Athanasius Kircher: the Musurgia Universalis.
In the Musurgia Universalis, the writer also highlights the use of Rhetorical Figures in music. Each figure corresponds to a Contrapunctus or to a group of contrapuncti, exactly in the same order I had discovered. Moreover, the description of each rhetorical figure assimilates that of each of the pieces that compose Bach’s work.
By comparing Kircher with Bach, not only did I find the confirmation of the correct order in which to perform the pieces (which was exactly the one I had obtained from the analysis), but I also found a description for each of them, which explained the emotional and philosophical meaning, the reason for many passages and, if confirmed, it is a sort of Rosetta Stone of the language of Bach, because the composer systematically used, notes, or passages to express specific feelings, as described by Kircher.
Taking this further, by comparing The Art of Fugue to the Musurgia Universalis, I found out that the last work of Bach is almost as if it were a Divine Comedy in music, as it describes a struggling path of a man towards God, that ends with the encounter with Him.
The main theme of The Art of Fugue represents the image of God, encompassed by a spectrum of feelings of a human being during his journey.
In the Divine Comedy, Dante interrupts the poem when he meets God, because no words can express such vision nor can the mind retain such memory. At the same time, in the moment in which Bach should meet God, i.e. when the main theme should appear for the last time, in the most solemn way, in a Contrapunctus that is the most complex and beautiful of them all, the music stops, as if it were unfinished, because the rhetorical figure called “The Repentina Abruptio (unexpected break) is the harmonic period in which we express a suddenly broken event, and it occurs more frequently at the end: ‘The wish of the sinners will die’.” (Kircher). Therefore, the sudden broken ending of The Art of Fugue might be the consequence of this concept: in front of the vision of God, the sinners will have no wishes left. It is as if music reached such height that it surpassed the limit of the atmosphere, where there are no sounds at all. To my opinion, then, the Art of Fugue is not unfinished, it is just unexpectedly broken.
The moment in which music stops occurs in Contrapunctus 14 (Bach often used this number as a signature, since in Gematria, B+A+C+H = 14), at bar 239 (2+3+9 = 14), after presenting the theme composed by the notes B, A, C and H. Right in front of these symbols of Bach, right in front of the figure of Bach, there is the encounter with God, which stops music.
Along with the Art of Fugue, in the first edition appeared a Chorale that apparently Bach dictated from his deathbed: “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit” (Before your throne I now appear,/O God, and humbly bid you,/turn not our gracious face,/away from me, poor sinner). This Chorale seems like a coded message that reveals the intention of the composer in composing the Art of Fugue.
Isn’t all this fascinating?
I can tell that the experience of playing The Art of Fugue and this journey with Bach has deeply changed me from the inside; I will never be the same. I think the whole world should be aware of such unearthly and timeless beauty. It is a work to be discovered through one’s life over the course of several years. A beauty that is not the goal of Bach’s work, but its ultimate product, as if one of Nature.
THE RESULT ON THIS RECORDING
This album is the result of my research and my journey with Bach. The pieces of the Art of Fugue are played in what I think is the order that Bach wanted in the first place. I thought that respecting Bach’s intentions, with utmost integrity would allow this magic to work as though it were alchemy. My interpretation was built on every theme, on every fragment, on every layer I could find. I took care of underlying every philosophical, theological and rhetorical meaning and every mathematical and architectural proportion I could catch. I tried to play in the most timeless and objective way I could, respecting Bach’s timeless style for a timeless work. I used a round sound, I employed nearly no pedal at all, but I tried to obtain a comfortable legato only relying on my fingers.
The Art of Fugue didn’t have any instrumental destination, because, unless Bach had to compose for a commission, he didn’t care which instrument would perform his music. What really mattered was the concept behind it. That is why in my opinion performing the Art of Fugue on the piano was not anti-philological; instead, I used piano as a medium to access more easily that timelessness I strived to achieve. Above all, I tried to step back as a person, give up my ego, and to bring out Bach’s music, in order to let the listener directly face his genius, without any interference.
Another important aspect of this project was the actual sound recording. It was as crucial as practicing on my touch on the piano. I know of many cases where the sound pick-up is not faithful and some great interpretations have been heavily damaged by inaccurate recordings, so I particularly cared of finding the right settings for the best result. After a search, I was lucky enough to meet Giacomo De Caterini, an amazing sound engineer with an incredible sensitivity and a very acute professionalism. He was the perfect partner for me. We recorded in Teatro Studio, in Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy and we spent hours to choose the best positioning of the microphones. We chose to record with the maximum possible PCM definition. The goal was recording as many details as possible, for the sound to give an analog-like and a warmer feeling.
I am so grateful to him for his dedication and his noble way of working.
All the covers have been created thanks to the designer Eugenia Benelli, who tried to synthesize with timeless geometric shapes the rhetorical figures used by Bach in the composition of each piece. The red dot symbolizes the main theme, the shapes what Bach does with his music.
# GETTING (TO) THAT SOUND
There most certainly are as many “piano sounds” as there are piano recordings. Or, rather, piano recording artists. Yet, the idea of “getting a sound” is always a daunting and tricky task for an engineer, and as such even more compelling when working with a simple, naked instrument to render a multi-dimensional and meaningful experience.
Many people would feel inclined to reduce the whole process to something ‘technical’ in nature. Others may imagine the endeavor as a technical, asymptotic struggle between the physical and the spiritual, the physical represented by the feathered hammer of the Hi-Fi equipment (and relative diluted production practices), and the spiritual by both our wings and our recurring alibi behind which to feel enlightened when checking one’s own delightened pockets.
I am far from blaming them.
There is much of everything just mentioned, yet the truth follows a rather different and possibly less compelling path.
To me, it is simply a process of self-caring and empathy; An ever-reassuring measure of mutual trust between the artist and the artisan beside him.
In this project, both artist and artisan literally let the sound of the instrument speak to them, in their own (not always) reassuring terms. We simply recorded the piano in the most neutral (read: neutral-good-sounding) space, as simply and as best we technically could with very good quality equipment, but with a bare-minimum attitude. We then let it decant for as much as needed to get as much flavor from its very essence and meaning, trying not to get distracted by any unnecessary treatment.
As it matured in the barrels of our own familiarity and comfort, it then began calling quietly for a place to exist. It already had an environment where to live, naturally, but the sound had now come of age, and now needed a breathing space, so we had to define how it was supposed to be quartered. A very intense quest ensued, where the stakes had been raised by the very nature of the matured sound, eager to live somewhere, incapable of settling for anything less than meaningful and deep. The difficult part was – and always is in these cases, to preserve its very essence; the DNA we grew accustomed to. At the same time it must be daring enough to synthesize its new living space. Whatever home one may be tempted to imagine for Bach’s music, the sense of space naturally has to somehow represent, and ultimately encompass the very performance that is defined there. Bach is usually extremely tolerant and aware of space; such is the greatness of the musical discourse in its ability to relocate and distribute itself effortlessly whatever the place may be. The goal here, however, lies in the transcendence: the music must live the newfound space; a mere coinhabiting would not suffice.
‘Space synthesis’ may then seem a rather technical, possibly even unethical process; the kind belonging to electronic music studios and the like, yet the action is instead exquisitely at home in all varieties. A sartorial attitude is de rigueur, and slowly, through a steady trial and error, the space is thus evocated, like a ghost who has always inhabited its walls bearing its name but is unwilling to manifest itself too soon.
It all is in fact a special, precious phase of the editing action, typical of the recording process, yet truly peculiar in its predestination. We couldn’t possibly have defined that space earlier in the process itself: the edited pieces had to rest with us. We had to grow on them.
The blessing of such a process is to be able to enjoy this trusted privilege together, and it happens very seldom, as the souls of the people involved have literally to be able to resonate together on a number of levels.
This is what has happened between Stefano and myself since the very beginning, as soon as our own dedication for the common sound blossomed. It has had the astonishing effortlessness of the true miracle meetings ever since. Such is our fortune, and there is no better explanation for our getting to that Sound.
Giacomo De Caterini
Recorded: 03-04 March 2021 at the Teatro Studio Borgna, Auditorium Parco della Musica, Rome, Italy
Piano: Steinway & Sons D No. 587441
Sound Engineer: Giacomo De Caterini
Editor: Stefano Greco
Mastering: Giacomo De Caterini
– Microphones: 2x Schoeps CMC5/Mk2S, 2x Sennheiser MKH 8090
– Recording preamps/converters: Merging Hapi – HR cards;
– Recording/Editing Daw: Sequoia
Graphic design: Eugenia Benelli
J.S. Bach: The Art of Fugue (Die Kunst Der Fuga, BWV 1080)
Stefano Greco, piano
- Contrapunctus 1, BWV 1080.1 (Pausis)
- Contrapunctus 2, BWV 1080.3 (Repetitio)
- Contrapunctus 3, BWV 1080.2 (Repetitio)
- Contrapunctus 4, BWV 1080.4 (Repetitio)
- Contrapunctus 5, BWV 1080.5 (Repetitio)
- Contrapunctus 6, BWV 1080.9 (Climax)
- Contrapunctus 7, BWV 1080.10 (Climax)
- Contrapunctus 8, BWV 1080.6 (Complexus)
- Contrapunctus 9, BWV 1080.7 (Complexus)
- Canon alla Ottava, BWV 1080.15 (Omoioptoton)
- Contrapunctus 10, BWV 1080.8 (Antitesis)
- Contrapunctus 11, BWV 1080.11 (Antitesis)
- Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu, BWV 1080.14 (Ascensio)
- Contrapunctus 12a, BWV 1080.12a (Katabasis)
- Contrapunctus 12b, BWV 1080.12b (Katabasis)
- Canon alla Duodecima, BWV 1080.17 (Circulatio)
- Contrapunctus 13a, BWV 1080.13a (Fuga)
- Contrapunctus 13b, BWV 1080.13b (Fuga)
- Canon alla Decima, BWV 1080.16 (Assimilatio)
- Contrapunctus 14, BWV 1080.19 (Repentina Abruptio)