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Debate has raged ever since its publication as to how The Art of Fugue was intended to be performed (if it ever was – there are many who claim it is a purely theoretical piece): as a keyboard work, or by an ensemble of instruments? (The fact that the manuscript is laid out with each voice given its own stave doesn’t necessarily rule out the former: any 18th-century keyboardist worth his or her salt would have been able to read from such a score; and, indeed, CPE Bach claimed it was intended for keyboard.)

This new recording by Accademia Bizantina and Ottavio Dantone comes not long after the highly-acclaimed version by Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque, and the two discs have almost identical instrumental line-ups. The two approaches differ much more, however: where Podger and her band emphasise the abstract, intellectual nature of the piece – focusing more on the trajectory of the whole work as the fugal techniques increase in complexity – Dantone plays with the combinations of instruments (particularly how he distributes the load between the organ and harpsichord) to give each movement its own expressive character. Each of these ways is acceptable, of course; but for me, The Art of Fugue has always been a work to be slightly in awe of, and so Podger’s more reverential approach speaks more to my heart – but that’s not in any way to denigrate the performances by Accademia Bizantina, which are first-class.

ADRIAN HORSEWOOD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2018 - ©Rhinegold Publishing