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:Art of Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach - The Art of Fugue and documentary film Desert FugueGramophone Magazine Review

A lavish production, fully justified by a great performance from George Ritchie.

Ritchie writes in the accompanying booklet that this is a work that “pleases the mind and the ear in equal measure” and in the DVD sets out his interpretative goal, hoping that listeners will be “thinking about the music, not what I’m doing to it”. As good as his word, Ritchie’s CD performances are of the type that demand the closest attention from listeners … and while his playing is neat and utterly devoid of idiosyncrasy, it draws the ear so fully into Bach’s music that I have no hesitation in describing this as a reference recording.

The contents of the DVD are a worthy accessory to the two CDs … with two films and three hours’ playing time. … the first of those films is a tremendously illuminating and magnificently produced documentary on the background to the recording itself, with interviews with Christoph Wolff and Messrs Richards and Fowkes (who built the Arizona organ on which the recording was made), as well as with Ritchie himself enthusing about the work and, in one of the film’s more fascinating episodes, the completion of the final Fugue by Ritchie’s own teacher Helmut Walcha.

The second film is a section-by-section description of the work with Ritchie highlighting the problems (illustrated by the edition of the score used in the recordings) and giving his solutions to them; an indulgence which most performers would envy but which is justified here by the uniquely dedicated work of everyone involved in what is, for me, the finest recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue irrespective of media or instrument.

Gramophone Magazine, July 2010



Choir and Organ Review

The vocabulary of modern documentary TV is deeply ingrained in our lives. It’s driven by a desire to hang on to the viewer at all costs – all too often the result is sound-bite scripts, frenetic editorial cutting and a concentration on arresting, but not always relevant, visual imagery. Fugue State Films’ Art of Fugue project is the absolute antithesis: conventional broadcasters would run a mile. The 2CD + DVD package is built around the US organist and pedagogue George Ritchie’s performance of Bach’s revised version, on the Richards, Fowkes organ of Pinnacle Presbyterian, Scottsdale, Arizona (with supplementary Bach works including Helmut Walcha’s completion of the final fugue, played on Taylor and Boody, Bedient and Brombaugh organs).

The audio tracks are complimented by a three-and-a-half hour DVD, Desert Fugue. In this documentary Ritchie and the doyen of Bach scholars, Christoph Wolff, are intercut as they discuss the meaning and impact of the work on the history of western music; organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes provide illumination on the organ of the Bach era (and modern US organ design); and finally, Ritchie and Wolff discuss the reception history of the Art of Fugue. Long pieces-to-camera are cut together with a linking narration by director Will Fraser that allows the story to unfold with the kind of pace and depth which the work’s rich complexities, and the protagonists’ detailed knowledge and experience, fully deserve. Fraser makes copious use of stills and recorded footage from Arizona, Leipzig, Naumburg, the Netherlands, England, and the Richards, Fowkes factory, to provide a visual counterpoint to the detailed narrative. To cap this, Ritchie sits at the Scottsdale console to provide nearly two hours of engaging, spontaneous bar-by-bar analysis, with helpful cutaways to the score; there is even a booklet with written notes and organ specifications.

Magnificent in its uncompromising approach, this remarkable production should be a set text for all university, college and conservatoire courses for performers and academics alike. ‘Lay’ people and Bach aficionados (with or without their own copy of the score) are certain to gain just as much pleasure and understanding of this monumental work from this endlessly absorbing set.

Graeme Kay
Choir and Organ, July / August 2010



Organists' Review

What a feast! Many regard Bach’s Art of Fugue as one of the most staggering intellectual musical achievements, 20 fugues lasting over 1 ½ hours all derived from the same four bar theme, a masterly flowering of branches from such a small seed. Some also regard it as divine music and not merely an exercise. Such people include Professor George Ritchie (university of Nebraska) and Christoph Wolff, who discuss the history and reception of the work in a compelling 90-minute documentary. This also touches upon Bach’s organs and the reasons why the CD recording was made on the Richards, Fowkes & Co organ in Scottsdale, Arizona (hence the title Desert Fugue), a discussion which includes the organ builders themselves. The second DVD offering is a substantial analysis by Ritchie of each individual movement with simultaneous score snapshots – a formidable but instructive lecture for any student, amateur or professional. For the performance he uses widely varied registrations from an intimate single string stop for Contrapunctus 3 to a plenum with reeds and mixture in Contrapunctis 11. All the registrations (and organ specifications) are given in the accompanying booklet. The second CD contains tracks from Ritchie’s 11-volume Bach Complete Works set recorded on three other American organs. Ritchie’s playing is neither metronomic nor flamboyant, but respectful and unmannered with subtle rubato. A student of Helmut Walcha, he also gives us Walcha’s completion of the final unfinished fugue. This is the second DVD I have seen made by Will Fraser of Fugue State Films and it confirms my impression that this is a company to watch closely. Fraser wrote of his projects in OR Feb 2010 and readers can learn more about this particular Bach recording there. I really don’t have enough superlatives for this generous and imaginative production.

John Henderson
Organists’ Review, August 2010



The Diapason

At the core of this recent release from Fugue State Films is a fine new solo organ recording of The Art of Fugue by George Ritchie, playing the 2006 Richards, Fowkes organ at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. However, in truth this is a veritable Art of Fugue cornucopia. In addition to the performance of the work itself, which was recorded in fall 2007 and spans about a CD and a half, there are performances of other late organ works of Bach—the chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit (placed right after the abrupt ending of the incomplete fi nal movement of The Art of Fugue, in the manner suggested by Bach’s heirs in the fi rst edition of the work), the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, the Schübler Chorales, and the Ricercar from the Musical Offering—drawn mostly from George Ritchie’s earlier recordings on the Raven label. These serve to place The Art of Fugue in context, both as a composition from a specific phase of Bach’s life and career and, in particular, as an organ composition.

The second CD concludes with Dr. Ritchie’s performance of Helmut Walcha’s completion of the final Contrapunctus of The Art of Fugue. This is wisely placed away from the great work itself, and thus is presented as a separate entity—an interesting and powerful gloss on Bach’s counterpoint by a seminal Bach performer who was himself a great contrapuntist, composer, and improviser of counterpoint. Most especially, however, it is Ritchie’s tribute to Walcha, who was his teacher, mentor, and inspiration, and to whom this recording is dedicated.

Ritchie describes, in the accompanying booklet and in the extraordinary DVD that forms the second major part of this set—about which more below—his encounter with Walcha’s approach to learning counterpoint for performance, or, more meaningfully, for understanding and performance. This approach involves studying each voice separately before putting any voices together. Ritchie follows this approach in his own work on the contrapuntal organ music of Bach, and the fruits of this study are abundantly to be heard in this recording.

The clarity and lucidity of the counterpoint is astonishing. The lines of each contrapunctus are so manifestly separate independent melodies that the listener never feels the need to strain or labor to hear them as such. This also creates the pleasant illusion that it is equally easy for the performer, which of course it is not: it is an act of transcendent virtuosity. It is also a source of great rhetorical power in this music and in this performance.

Dr. Ritchie’s articulations are clear and consistent, and never exaggerated or sound forced. In general, tempos are moderate. For me as a listener, these tempos are a great plus, and actually enhance excitement and drama, since they allow those attributes to arise out of the counterpoint and out of the ebb and flow of harmonic tension. Registrations are colorful, and again seem designed to enhance rather than obscure or in any way distract from the integrity of the lines. The recording serves as a fine introduction to the organs of Richards, Fowkes, & Co.

The final element of this set—by no means an afterthought to the recorded performances—is a documentary DVD in two parts. The first part, about an hour and a half long, is a wide-ranging discussion about The Art of Fugue, Bach’s life and music, the organ of Bach’s time and the organ used in the recording, George Ritchie’s history with the piece, his work with Helmut Walcha, and many other things relevant to this recording and to the great work. The participants in this segment include Bach scholar Christoph Wolff and organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes, as well as George Ritchie himself. It is, not surprisingly, interesting and informative.

But I want to mention something else about it: I reacted to it as being powerfully moving as well. The way the discussion was framed and carried out had the effect for me of delivering something like the following message: Bach was a person, albeit a very talented one; we are all people; we are all working together: each of us is part of the same fabric, the same web, the same picture. This is an elusive feeling that I try to capture myself whenever I can, and try to convey to my students. I have rarely found it evoked as strongly as it is in this short film. This comes about in part through simple things like the juxtaposition of pictures of Bach’s church and Bach’s town with pictures of Pinnacle Presbyterian and its desert environs. It is conveyed in the main, however, through the relaxed, joyous, humane, and serious but never somber demeanor of the participants.

The final element of this very full package is George Ritchie’s nearly two hour “Introduction to The Art of Fugue,” in which he goes through each constituent piece offering partly theoretical analysis—mostly about counterpoint, some about harmony or other things—and partly discussion of historical context, performance decisions, and other matters. These discussions are clear enough and sufficiently light on jargon that I believe they can be followed by viewers who do not already know much about counterpoint or The Art of Fugue—assuming that they are willing to listen with real attention and focus.

They also continue the relaxed, friendly, yet serious attitude found in the first section of the DVD. This segment gives the viewer the opportunity to watch Dr. Ritchie play—short examples—and correlate, for example, pair-wise fingerings and same-toe pedaling with the articulations that they create.

In keeping with the nature of this set, even the booklet is jam-packed with information, including stoplists, registrations, a glossary of terms used in the DVD, further analysis of all of the music found on the two CDs, and more. Furthermore, the Fugue State Films website has even more, with a fascinating link or two. Check it out!

Gavin Black
The Diapason, November 2010



Notes, the Quarterly Journal of the Music Library Association

There is much to savor in this lavish package from Fugue State Films, but the main course is George Ritchie’s magnificent recording of the Art of Fugue, made on the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. organ at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, Scottsdale, Arizona.  Ritchie Professor of Organ Emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, chose to record the later version, for which Bach revised various pieces, rearranged the order, and added new works for a total of fourteen fugues and four canons. 

In his essay “An Approach to the Art of Fugue,” which is included in the booklet accompanying the two CDs and DVD, Ritchie credits the combination of Christoph Wolff’s scholarship on the Art of the Fugue—including his publication of both the early and the final version—and the building of the organ based on central German organs of Bach’s time by Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes in 2006 for leading him to fulfill the goal he had for decades of recording this version.  Another key figure in this endeavor is Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), a blind German organist who specialized in performing, recording, and teaching the organ works of J.S. Bach, who Ritchie studied with in the 1960s and to whom he dedicated this recording.  Ritchie describes Walcha’s completion of the fragmentary final fugue as “one of the most successful of several that have been published,” and he includes his recording of it here as a bonus track (in addition to his recording of the unfinished final fugue in Bach’s manuscript). 

Due to the time constraints of the format, Ritchie was forced to add a second CD to accommodate all of the pieces.  On the second CD, he includes selections under the heading Additional Late Works, all of which were previously released in 2003 on his 11-CD set J.S. Bach Organ Works Complete (Raven-875).  These performances were recorded on three different organs in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, and the works include Ricercar à 6 (from Musikalisches Opfer BWV 1079) and the six “Schübler” Chorales.  Although it is nice to have a side helping of late Bach to go with the main course, these tracks mostly serve to make the performances and the sound of his work on the Art of Fugue even more brilliant by comparison. 

Ritchie includes all the registrations and organ specifications—as well as a glossary of terms from his essays and notes—in the booklet, making this both a helpful and instructional guide.  The two CDs are complimented by a DVD, which includes a 90-minute documentary titled Desert Fugue (featuring Ritchie, Christoph Wolff, and organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes) and a 111-minute film of Ritchie giving a detailed introduction to all twenty movements of the Art of the Fugue.  A review of the content on the DVD is beyond the scope of this column. 

This recording will augment the appreciation and the understanding of The Art of Fugue for all listeners, and it will delight all who are fortunate enough to find it in the holdings of their local library.  It might even inspire listeners to make a pilgrimage to Pinnacle Presbyterian in Scottsdale in order to experience the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. instrument in person.  Listening to this recording is itself a transporting experience.

Tom Caw
Notes, June 2011



The Tracker

I have long been puzzled by the role Phoenix, Arizona, plays as a typical American city even though its desert location is as exotic as that of Baghdad or Ulan Bator. Two of our most iconic representations of ordinary American life stem from Phoenix. Bil Keane's syndicated cartoon, "The Family Circus," is set there, but rarely is there the slightest suggestion that it isn't in Peoria or Allentown. Occasionally, we see some bird's-eye views of the neighborhood and every backyard has a swimming pool, but that is about the only hint. The other example is the wonderful comical columns of the late Erma Bombeck. Again, did she ever give the smallest clue that she wasn't writing from Kansas City or Syracuse, New York?

So, in this sense, there's nothing really jarring about an organ that's an excellent vehicle for the music of J.S. Bach being located in Phoenix's upscale suburb of Scottsdale. And we organ enthusiasts, listening with our cultural blinders shutting out everything but our particular enthusiasms, probably do not want to be reminded that a large proportion of the people in Arizona are not Bach-loving gringos, or that some of them are not even legal immigrants. And we certainly don't want to think about the fact that originally Arizona was solely the home of native Americans, and still has a major part of its acreage set aside in their reservations. The subsequent grafting-on of a Hispanic culture forms a major element in the style of the state. But the explosion of immigrating non-Hispanic, non-Native American people in Phoenix, Tucson, and other parts of Arizona has established a new group that has no interest in the real nature of the place beyond its year-round golf season.

This production devoted to Bach's The Art of Fugue has attempted to somehow tie it to its locale. The slipcover is illustrated by the depiction of a saguaro cactus positioned in front of the original engraved score of The Art of Fugue decorated with ornamental flourishes. A documentary film is included and is entitled "Desert Fugue." Beyond that, I find nothing really uniquely Arizonian or desert-like about it. The playing is warm and deeply felt, the scholarship is profound, and the sounds of the organs are rich and colorful. It is a wonderful production that has universal values, and no need to be tied to any geographic locale.

Two CDs feature George Ritchie performing the later version of The Art of Fugue on the new Richards, Fowkes, & Co. organ, Opus 14, in the Pinnacle Presbyterian Church of Scottsdale, Arizona. As always, Ritchie's performance is beautifully nuanced and flawless. The organ, typical of this firm's efforts, has a lovely, limpid sound that serves the music warmly and convincingly.

The second CD also features some additional late Bach works. On the Taylor and Boody Opus 9 in the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, Ritchie plays Vor deinen Thron, BWY 668, and the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, BWV 769a. The Ricercar a 6 from the Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079, is played on the Bedient Opus 8 in Cornerstone, Lincoln, Nebraska. For the Schübler Chorales, Ritchie chooses the Brombaugh Opus 6 in the Church of Seventh-Day Adventists at Southern Adventist University in Collegedale, Tennessee. Needless to say, the performances are authoritative and beautiful, and the recorded sound is excellent.

The DVD contains two sections. The first, called "Desert Fugue," is a discussion featuring Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, organist George Ritchie, and organbuilders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes. Topics range from how The Art of Fugue fits into the panorama of western music, what sort of organ Bach may have had in mind for his music, and various issues regarding Bach's musical legacy.

A second section of the DVD is an introduction by George Ritchie to all 20 movements of The Art of Fugue, treating fugal techniques, and many examples illustrated by the Peters edition of the score.

I cannot recommend this package too highly for anyone who has an interest in Bach's seminal work. One cannot listen and watch this production without a profound appreciation of the creativity of Bach, the scholarship and musicianship of Ritchie, and the excellence of the instruments used. The Art of Fugue has been a source of wonder for some two-and-a-half centuries. If we can figure out how to make a world safe for it, I see no reason why it won't continue to do so for another 250 years.

George Bozman

The Tracker, Autumn 2010


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