This fugal work of contrapuntal elegance was composed near the close of Bach's long and highly productive life. Although the work is incomplete, it remains a startling reminder of how even nearly 300 years ago something of such magnitude and mastery was well within the reach of this groundbreaking composer, and nothing of the like has been composed or even dreamt of before or since. It is well known for representing the synthesis of current baroque styles and the ultimate incarnation of the fugal form. The piece is of incredible complexity, and a complete and thorough review is omitted here, so that hopefully some idea of how the work operates can be communicated...
Consisting of a number of fugues, all of the same key (D minor), most beginning with a deceptively simple melody whereupon the germ of the composition applies various transformations, shears, interpolations and rotations to the initial theme bringing it to its ultimate fruition. Gradually the fugue will increase in complexity and although what you are hearing at this point may seem muddled and confused, upon closer inspection the initial small group of notes will still be evident representing the internal nature or character of the fugue. I have always likened the work to the mathematical concept of fractal geometry, whereby patterns form a whole not dissimilar in structure from themselves, in the sense that close listening reveals patterns that have expressed themselves in different ways elsewhere, in either this fugue or another, mingling and wading betwixt each other in an ocean of contrapuntal wizardry.
The 1751 printed edition contains a total of 15 fugues one of which is incomplete, and 4 canons, arranged in approximate order of sophistication, though (predictably) there has been much debate as to the "true" arrangement and coordination of the piece, and various different orders have been proposed, with varying acclaim. The CD itself (supposedly based on the 1751 edition) consists of 20 tracks including the unfinished 17th fugue and two fugues, Nos. 12 & 13 which are split two tracks each. One remarkable thing about this particular release is the ordering of the tracks, and the apparent science behind that ordering. Upon reading the helpful leaflet that comes with the CD a rather detailed explanation as to the contrapuntal order is present. André explains how they are based on the existence of 'five very distinct contrapuntal groups : four simple fugues, three streto fugues with mirror exposition, four double and triple fugues, two simple mirror fugues and four canonical fugues'. He then goes on to explain the ordering of each category of fugues. Also found in the booklet is musical notation corresponding to the aforementioned 'germ' which forms the basis for each fugue.
An endless riddle of contradictions and puzzles, the piece is at once both seemingly confined to baroque formalism, yet roaming infinitely within these confines, it is hellishly chaotic, yet ordered in its etiquette, defining perfection, yet incomplete, at first appearing logical and overtly formal only then to transcend such terminology. Perhaps my only complaint with this performance is occasionally the piece sounds that bit too muddled, endangering the clarity of expression and all too often sounding as though one is simply drowning in the music, though in all probability for some this would be a plus. Some have even conjectured that Bach engineered the piece solely for analytical & technical indulgence, though I claim it to be as passionate and full of emotion as anything from the Romantic/Classical eras.
Die Kunst Der Fuge has been performed in a variety of ways, the most common being a single organist or pianist although it has been recorded by harpsichordists, string quartets and even entire orchestras. Bach's preference with regards to instrumentation is debatable, though more than likely the organ would have been at the forefront of his mind when composing this piece (no doubt because he composed it on the organ!) and indeed the work sounds more natural on the organ, where the simultaneous contrapuntal melodies are able to communicate with each other more effectively than on the piano where generally a more stacatto, stilted approach is applied (definitely in Glenn Gould's rendition).
Certainly among Bach's crowning achievements, and along with 'The Goldberg Variations' and 'The Well-Temperered Clavier' a gem in the realm of western european keyboard works. A fitting epitaph indeed.