This is quite fabulous. Rachel Podger is widely recognised as one of the world's leading baroque violinists and interpreters, and this is yet another excellent recording from her. She and her fellow musicians have produced something very special here, I think.
Bach's Art of Fugue is written in open score, allowing it to be played on all manner of instruments, including the keyboard. As a result there are many very fine recordings already in existence, including my two personal favourites by Phantasm (arranged for viol consort) and Angela Hewitt on the piano. This is their equal, I think. It's not an easy work to get right for performance; it is extremely cerebral, of course, but there are genuine emotional and spiritual statements here and balancing the two can be tricky. To my ears Podger and her ensemble get it exactly right; they vary the instrumentation to maintain interest, the clarity of line and fugal structure is all there, but there's also a real sense of the spiritual depth of Bach's writing and it's spellbinding in places.
The playing is exceptionally good, as one would expect from musicians of this calibre. In chamber playing there is often something rather indefinable which goes to make a great performance in addition to technical excellence, precision and so on; it's to do with the players having a shared love of the music and a shared sense of its real meaning. I would be very hard pressed to say exactly how this shows itself, but I think it does here, and very powerfully. For me, it lifts the performance from the very good to the exceptional. Also (and I know not everyone agrees with me here), I wholeheartedly approve of the decision to end the disc with the incomplete version of Contrapunctus 14 as Bach left it at his death. That sudden halt has a poignancy I find in few other places in music, and it gets me every time here.
The notes are adequate if not brilliant – but that's only a minor point. What really counts here is the music and its performance, both of which are superb. I said last year of Rachel Podger's magnificent recording of Biber's Rosary Sonatas that there would be something seriously wrong if it wasn't a major contender in the next Gramophone Awards (there wasn't – it won one) and I can say the same of this. It's a wonderful release.