Cluj Philharmonic Orchestra, Erich Bergel Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (2CD)

BMCCD011 1998

℗ 1998 & 2001 

“Experts consider Bach's last great work the zenith of his career and at the same time the centre of European musical culture”, says Erich Bergel about The Art of Fugue. The conductor contributed to the after-life of The Art of Fugue not only with scientific conclusions, but also as a composer: he completed the unfinished closing fugue of the monumental cycle, a feat later judged “an epoch-making achievment” by Karajan. This live concert recording is a hommage to a great musician who is known as one of the best interpreters of Bach's chef d'oeuvre.


Cluj Philharmonic Orchestra (Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra)
Conducted by Erich Bergel

About the album

Live recording of a public concert in 1991 in the Synagogue of Dohány utca - Budapest
Recorded by the Hungarian Radio
Recording producer: László Matz
Sound engineer: Péter Schlotthauer

Cover photo: Lenke Szilágyi
Design: Meral Yasar

Produced by László Gőz

The recording was sponsored Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the National Cultural Fund of Hungary.

4500 HUF 13.92 EUR

Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (CD1)

Four simple fugues 1

01 I The direct main subject 3:24
02 II The direct main subject 3:10
03 III The inverted main subject 3:21
04 IV The inverted main subject 4:01

Three counter-fugues

05 V Both the direct and inverted main subject, dotted variation (two framings) 4:29
06 VI Both the direct and inverted main subject, dotted variation - both diminished (four framings) 3:56
07 VII Both the direct and inverted main subject, dotted variation - both diminished as well as augmented (six framings) 3:26

Four simple fugues 2

08 VIII-IX Two double fugues: each one with a new subject and the main subject 3:03
09 VIII-IX Two double fugues: each one with a new subject and the main subject 5:12
10 X-XI Two triple fugues: each one with a new polythematic subjects and the main subject fugues 7:11
11 X-XI Two triple fugues: each one with a new polythematic subjects and the main subject fugues 7:02
Total time 87:59

Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (CD2)

Four canons with two voices in the form of a fugue (XII., XIII. and XIV. with the main subject varied)

01 XII Canone all ottava 3:10
02 XIII Canone alla decima 6:29
03 XIV Canone alla duodecima 2:12
04 XV Mirror - and augmentation canon 5:48
In the mirror canon the second voice mirrors the first one, in double values (augmentation)

Two mirror fugues, each one to be performed twice: direct (rectus) and totally inverted (inversus)

05 XVI A mirror - an counterfugue for three voices with the main a) rectus 2:31
06 b) inversus 2:37
07 XVII Mirror fugue with a) rectus 2:44
08 b) inversus 3:00

The last (closing) quadruple fugue

09 XVIII (completed by Erich Bergel) 15:00
Total time 87:59

The Art of Fugue - with Erich Bergel's completion

Bach's most monumental series, one of the greatest myths in the history of music, has been surrounded by mystery ever since the composer's death. One of the reasons for this are the several differences between its two extant sources, a manuscript in Bach's own handwriting and the first edition (printed posthumously in 1751), which do not suggest the same order of succession for the individual pieces. And even if the sequence seems to be established with some certainty after the thorough musicological investigations of the 1970s and 80s, the unfinished quadruple fugue still remains a secret. Even its belonging to the cycle was questioned for a long time, as the extant version does not contain the main subject of the series. In 1880, however, Nottebohm recognized that this “lacking” subject can be combined with the three subjects of the fragment, so presumably it was precisely the addition of that fourth subject which was intended to complete the fugue, and to crown the series. Several prominent musicians, like Hugo Riemann, Ferrucio Busoni, the influential English theorist Sir Donald Francis Tovey or the Hungarian Zoltán Göncz made reconstructions of the complete piece. Even more interesting than these attempts is the assumption of Christoph Wolf and Gregory Butler that Bach had in fact finished the movement, but the manuscript was lost. At all events a close investigation of the extant examples of the first edition has shown that some of the metal printing plates were renumbered, and by the time of planning the publication, Bach already knew exactly how much place the piece would take up.

Erich Bergel is related to this mysterious masterpiece in a very personal way. Besides being a Transylvanian of Saxon origin, and in a sense a late successor of the instrumental tradition to which Bach also belonged, this work meant to him a return to life. Having been released from the prison of the Rumanian communist dictatorship after three and a half years, he trained himself by yoga exercises and the study of The Art of Fugue in the following years, waiting for the chance to be able to take his baton in his hand again. Two decades' intensive study of Bach's opus ultimum resulted in two books and Bergel's own completion of the quadruple fugue. The latter was considered to be “an epoch-making achievement” by Karajan, and “a revolutionarily new insight into Bach's late work” by the eminent Bach-scholar, Friedrich Smend.
Bergel also orchestrated the work -- his version is distinguished from the others by its organ-like use of the orchestra. This orchestration mirrors the most characteristic artistic feature of its creator: the inner flame, the spiritual fire which unifies the discipline of structural planning and the charm of spontaneity. One could argue the historic authenticity of the quadruple fugue's romanticizing conclusion, but its artistic value and validity is beyond doubt.

Zoltán Farkas

Johann Sebastian Bach: The Art of Fugue

Bach's last great composition: The Art of Fugue is widely regarded as the climax of his creative work; indeed some see it as the apogee of all European music. Here his contrapuntal technique reaches a crystalline clarity, which has no equal in the music of all times.

The peculiar fate of this work, to be completely ignored for almost two centuries, can be ascribed to the fact that Bach notated it in open score without giving any indication of the medium of the performance, and that he died before its completion.

Failing to understand Bach's intentions, his sons and pupils created chaos as regards the order of the fugues in preparing them for publication. As a result of this the accuracy of the first edition must be questioned, since it came to light that in the process of composing this work Bach expanded it, added new sections and changed the order of those already completed. These changes prove that Bach saw it as a living cycle having organic growth. Consequently the fugues should not be performed in an arbitrary order, as many performers do out of ignorance. There is only one correct sequence.

The title The Art of Fugue probably stems from the publisher, not from Bach himself. This does not mean that it should be rejected. It repreents the fundamental purpose of the work: to demonstrate within one structure how different types of fugue, appearing in order of compositional difficulty, synchronize with the organic growth and overall development of the work. It would be wrong to classify The Art of Fugue as either a pedagogical or an art work. The one does not exclude the other as they are complementary. In this cycle each fugue is a work of art of the highest order, and each work of art is at the same time a pedagogical model of mastery.

The first group of four pieces consists of simple fugues. The first presents the main subject with its restful movement and formal balance, showing a perspective of the cycle as a whole. Its main subject is the basis of all the fugues, although it changes as the work progresses. Already, for instance, in the second fugue, the four last notes appear in dotted rhythm. This dotted rhythm, which dominates throughout the fugue, gives an animation in contrast to the first fugue. The third fugue is again more restful. The main subject appears in inversion, besides which an important element is introduced into the melodic substance of this work: descending chromatic notes - an expression of sorrow - appear in the counter-subject. The exhilarating fourth fugue, in which the main subject is again given in inversion, reflects optimism and playfulness.

The second group consists of three counter-fugues, based on the main subject in its original form, as well as in inversion, slightly changed. The fifth fugue is a work of particular melodic beauty. A new element is introduced in the form of two stretti for all voices of the main subject, in its original form as well as in inversion. In the sixth fugue the main subject appears in its original form, in inversion and in diminution. In the seventh fugue augmentation is added. Thus the treatment of the subject is as follows:

Fifth Fugue: Two forms - direct and inverted.
Sixth Fugue: Four forms - both forms appearing in diminution as well.
Seventh Fugue: Six forms - both forms appearing in diminution and in augmentation as well.

In addition, the sixth fugue contains small groups of three ascending or descending demi-semi-quavers, which, combined with dotted rhythms, are reminiscent of the French style. Yet, the subtitle in stilo francese probably does not origin from Bach himself. In these counter-fugues the subjects often appear simultaneously in different forms and note-values. Thus, especially in the seventh fugue, the miracle of Bach's contrapuntal technique evokes a solar system in which the planets rotate in different orbits. This group of fugues with its ever increasing number of subject forms takes us through a corresponding build-up of tension, so that the end of the seventh fugue represents a preliminary climax.

The third group consists of four fugues: two double and two triple fugues. (In a double fugue a second subject is introduced, which later appears simultaneously with the main subject. In a triple fugue two more subjects are introduced, leading to the simultaneous appearance of all three subjects.) The first double fugue introduces a new glittering cascade-like subject, which, in quick tempo and various keys, registers and combinations, makes seven simultaneous appearances with the main subject. The second double fugue contains, in addition to its two subjects, a characteristic counter-subject, treated in fugato style. This fugue with its restful movement sounds sonorous and peaceful.

The first triple fugue, in comparison to the second, sounds light-hearted and playful. In both triple fugues the subjects are introduced independently before appearing simultaneously. The first subject of the first triple fugue contains chromatic elements. In the second triple fugue the retrograde inversion of the second subject leads to a point of great significance for the whole work; the thematic incarnation of B-A-C-H, the chromatic substance of which had in fact been omnipresent in many disguised forms right from the start of the first fugue. Besides this, the addition of a counter-subject, consisting of eight ascending semi-tones, leads to an unprecedented concentration of chromaticism.

In his vocal works Bach always used chromaticism to depict Christ's suffering, the crucifixion, sorrow and death. As it happens, the letters of Bach's name B A C H, (H being the equivalent of B), grouped together melodically produce a chromatic succession of notes, which, with the addition of C (the leading-note) and D (the tonic) can be extended to form a six-note chromatic series: the chromaticised upper tetrachord of D minor. This is complemented by the lower tetrachord, appearing as the last four notes of the main subject. These two halves in effect represent the melodic world in which European music has existed for centuries: diatonicism and chromaticism.

In The Art of Fugue Bach uses the “chromatic” letters of his name - representing Christianity - symbolically, in dialogue with the diatonic main subject, to pont out the relationship between Man and God. The spiritual substance of this work exists in the bi-polarity of these two subjects, which are analogous to the two poles of western philosophy: medieval Aristotelianism and modern transcendentalism as expressed in Kant's ego-metaphysics.

Because of its chromatic density the 11th fugue has been described as a “real inferno” of human sorrow. It has gigantic dimensions, and it reaches a climax, which opens new perspectives: here man was born (the B-A-C-H subject) in order to aspire to spiritualization. Somehow the world seems to have changed course.

It is significant that the next four canonical fugues give expression to the human temperaments. In the sanguine first canon, with its fast moving triplets, the main subject appears in altered form. The phlegmatic second canon seems to be floating in weightless syncopation with the original form of the main subject. In the choleric third canon with its wilful ascending and descending sextuplets and quavers, the main subject once again appears in strongly altered form. In the melancholic fourth canon the top voice is mirrored by the lower one, which moves sedately in double note-values - a contrapuntal masterpiece of the first order, yet music of profound expressiveness.

In the dialogue between Man and God something of great significance takes place again: chromatic elements, deduced from the inversion of the B-A-C-H subject, make their appearance in the diatonic main subject. Thus, within one subject, diatonicism is united with chromaticism: God created man according to his image, and man recognises his Creator in the mirror of his soul.

The phenomenon of mirroring one voice by another is the link to the next two fugues, in which the mirroring is complete. However, the mirroring does not take place simultaneously. Each fugue is heard twice - the second time with complete inversion of all the voices.

The first mirror fugue is simultaneously a counter-fugue, as the main subject appears in both forms: the original form and its inversion. In addition, while mirroring the voices, Bach also exchanges their positions: the top voice becomes the lowest, the middle voice the top, and the lowest the middle voice. Nobody could have set himself a more difficult task. Human intelligence seems to reach its limit, so that one can only speak of genius here. Yet, this fugue sounds brisk and elated, as if nothing special was taking place. The second mirror fugue is for four voices. It has a quiet, peaceful mood. The main subject in its original form appears in 3/2 time. After the preceding tempestuous events the waves subside in preparation for the last step towards consummation.

The last fugue

Had this work reached us in completed form, we would be in possession of the most comprehensive and powerful fugue in the entire literature of music. The portion, which was written down helps us to draw fairly accurate conclusions with regard to its dimensions.: the last fugue was meant to be a quadruple fugue.

Three of the four subjects appear successively in full expositions, each exposition being followed by the simultaneous appearance of that subject with the preceding subject or subjects. The score breaks off at the point where the third subject, after its full exposition, makes its first simultaneous appearance with the first and second subjects. From this it can be concluded that, after several appearances of the three subjects, the fourth subject would also have been given a full exposition before - as the culmination of the whole work - it would have appeared simultaneously with the preceding three subjects. The fact that these three subjects were “new”, and up to that point the main subject had not appeared in this fugue gave rise to the erroneous conclusion that the last fugue did not form part of The Art of Fugue. However, in 1880 Gustav Nottebohm discovered that the main subject can be combined in simultaneous appearance with these three subjects. This certainly cannot be regarded as a coincidence, and thus proves that the main subject was planned to be used as the fourth subject in the last fugue. Consequently there can be no doubt that the last fugue belongs to The Art of Fugue.

Apart from these considerations, a thousand threads meet at this point and steer the development of the entire “organism” towards its culmination. For the sensitive listener the entry of the third subject of the last fugue - the B-A-C-H subject - represents one of the most sublime and impressive moments in all music literature. After countless metamorphoses and hidden appearances in which it accompanied the main subject - its chromaticism representing the human sphere in contrast to the “sublime” diatonicism of the main subject - it now appears without any superfluities in crystal clear form. This is the quintessence and conclusion of a development of “cosmic dimensions”, matured, as it were, at an altitude where solitary peaks, towering into the skies, are surrounded by “fluid light”.

Recently the question of which medium of performance was intended for The Art of Fugue has become a controversial subject. Some pianists, harpsichordists and theorists hold that it is a keyboard work. Their arguments, however, are based on suppositions which can be refuted. Fortunately, practical musicians are as little concerned with these opinions as they are with the demands of the others that The Art of Fugue should be “enjoyed in the spirit of soundless abstraction in which the work was created”. Every single note of this work calls for tonal incarnation, and its beauty of sound has been proved a thousand times. Without doubt the organ is the most suitable instrument to do justice to the polyphonic structures of Bach's concepts. However, in contrast to the objectivity of the organ sound, violinists and woodwind players are better equipped to express intense emotions. Consequently, the ideal choice seems to be a form of instrumentation which has the possibility of being expressive as well as powerful: the symphony orchestra. The orchestra need not necessarily be used according to the principles of Richard Strauss or Stravinsky. By means of octave doublings and combinations of instruments with differing tone colours, it is possible to approximate to the tonal qualities of the organ. These considerations served as guidelines for my orchestration.

However, it does not really matter on which instruments Bach's music is performed. This he proved himself by transferring his violin concerti from the realm of expressive melody to the mechanical world of the plucked, short-lived harpsichord sound. His linear counterpoint moves in a sphere which is not bound by specific sound qualities. Its very substance expresses the essence of the music.

Our century has discovered polyphony as “therapeutic music”, and in this sense Bach must be seen as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind. It is not absolutely necessary to “understand” his music. Art need not be understood, it must be accepted. Bach's music also addresses the unaffected listener who does not understand its “tablature”, but who is prepared to take careful note of its message, which, in spite of its intellectual complexity and artistry, is a powerful expression of emotions. In this respect Bach's music does not take second place to the music of the romantic period. The listener feels that he is addressed and enriched, and he replies with an innermost “Yes” because he perceives the inherent natural laws and the moral power reaching him through Bach's music.

Erich Bergel 

Erich Bergel

“Music is basically always a religious service. I thank God every day for making me a musician.” Bergel’s words could have spoken by Johann Sebastian Bach. The similarity is not accidental: the Transylvanian Saxon musician is connected by invisible strings to the German organist-kapellmeister tradition that once gave the world the greatest genius in the history of music.

Bergel was born on 1st June 1930 in Rumania, in the Transylvanian village of Rozsnyó and spent the first four decades of his life there, in one of Europe’s most ethnically complex regions. He received dual advantages from the paternal home. On the one hand, the multi-national family, for his father was of Saxon origin and his mother descended from Spanish and Hungarian ancestors. On the other hand, his love for chamber music and the joy of playing music every day in the family circle (under the direction of his violinist father he played music with his two sisters and a brother, and could play the violin, the flute and the piano from an early age). The organ and several brass instruments soon followed in the line of instruments to be discovered, and this exceptionally manifold musical career once again brings to mind the Golden Age of Bach. (He was able to make use of his excellent instrumental knowledge later, in orchestral work, and when, in the 1960’s, he was barred for political reasons from conducting, he made a living playing the trumpet with the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra). Betrween 1950 and 1955 he graduated from the College of Music in Cluj, specializing in conducting, composing and the organ. His years of studying only strengthened Bach’s heritage in him, which was conveyed by Kurt Mild, a pupil of Günter Ramin and Fritz Heitman, the best representatives of the German organist school. Bergel’s passionate interest in Bach’s final monumental work, Die Kunst der Fuge, dates from these years of study. After graduating in 1955 he worked as a musical director for four years in Nagyvárad, then from 1959 he became conductor of the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra but he was arrested that same year, charged with “subversive activity against the state”. His “crime”, in the eyes of the Communist regime was that in his capacity of musical director, he regularly performed religious oratories and took part in several organ concerts. He was sentenced to seven years, and after spending three and a half years in prison and labour camp, he was given amnesty in 1962. For a while he couldn’t use his conductor’s baton, he slowly recovered from the physical and spiritual torments of his captivity with the help of yoga and the intensive study of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge. Between 1965 and 1971 he was once again conductor of the Transylvania Philharmonic Orchestra. With Herbert von Karajan’s personal patronage he was finally able to leave Rumania in 1971 and his career as an international conductor developed rapidly. Karajan invited him as guest conductor of the Berlin Philharmonics, and from 1972 he taught at the Music Academy of Berlin. In the course of his career, as a conductor, he worked with 160 orchestras in 35 different countries, on every continent. He directed the Houston Symphonics, several orchestras  of the BBC and the Flemish Radio's Orchestra (Brussels), for long periods. From 1989 to 1994 he was the leading conductor of the Budapest Philharmonic Society’s Orchestra and a regular guest conductor of the Hungarian State Opera. He worked successfully at raising the artistic level of these renowned orchestras. His interpretations of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner raised the interest of both professionals and audiences alike, critics saw in him the continuation of the great line of conductors, from Furtwängler to Karajan.

The passionate attention that Bergel gave to Bach’s mysterious opus ultimum resulted in two books (Die Kunst der Fuge, 1980 and Bachs letzte Fuge, 1985; both were  published by the Brockhaus printing house). These books are among the most significant musicological essays endeavouring to interpret the chef d’oeuvre of Bach. Bergel contributed to the afterlife of The Art of the Fugue not only with his scientific conclusions, but also as composer. He complemented the unfinished closing fugue of this monumental cycle. Karajan called it an “work of epochal significance” and one of the most noted Bach-scholars of this century, Friedrich Smend, said it was a “revolutionary insight into Bach’s last work of art”. Bergel did the instrumentation for the whole work and his variation is different from all the others in that the orchestra is treated in an untraditional, organ-like way.

The Bergel instrumentation bears the traits of the musician’s most personal character: that inner flame which has made his famous interpretations legendary, that spiritual fire in which discipline and planning are combined with the magic of spontaneity. 

There is a common faith at the base of Bergel’s rich musical character: the conductor, music scholar, organist, “musical preacher” and teacher were all inspired by what he described with these most beautiful words: “Music is an invitation to the greatest joy and at the same time to the greatest solemnity. It teaches you both. I cannot think of a more complex pedagogy than music.”

Zoltán Farkas

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