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New Century Saxophone Quartet

The Art of Fugue

  • Type SACD
  • Label Channel Classics
  • UPC 0723385202042
  • Catalog number CCS 20204
  • Release date 21 January 2004
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About the album

When discussing the possibility of recording J.S. Bachs "Die Kunst der Fuge" (The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080) with those in and outside the classical music world, the question of playing this great masterwork on saxophones invariably arises early in the conversation! After all, the saxophone was not even invented until nearly 100 years after Bachs death. However, there are two interesting points which should allay any concerns as to the appropriateness of the music of Bach to the saxophone. First, Bach, who was known to be a man of precision regarding instrumentation and other musical issues, did not indicate any instrumentation for "The Art of Fugue." Neither did his son C.P.E. Bach, to whom he dictated this, his final work. Second, the saxophone quartet is the only modern chamber ensemble designed as a true consort. The entire family, from sopranino to contrabass was conceived by its maker, Adolphe Sax, as an extension of a single acoustic design, uniform and complementary throughout the range. Thus the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones represent a pure consort, more consistent in tone color from top to bottom than the brass or woodwind quintet, and even the string quartet. It was in fact a member of one of the worlds most well known string quartets who convinced NCSQ to look at this music, leading eventually to this recording. 

In 1994 the New Century Saxophone Quartet and the Julliard String Quartet performed in Los Angeles Ambassador Auditorium on consecutive nights. In a backstage conversation, the Juilliards cellist, Joel Krosnick, suggested that New Century explore "The Art of Fugue," feeling it might be a good match for the sonority of a saxophone quartet. This was not the first time the quartet had heard this. Five years earlier, in 1989, Philip Dunigan, the well known flutist and teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts, had also encouraged the quartet to play "The Art of Fugue," however it took the advice of a second great musician, Krosnick, to get the Quartet to overcome its natural hesitation to take on this challenge. A year later the quartet began performing three of the contrapuncti as a set in their recitals, to great audience and critical acclaim. After years of performing these excerpts, the quartet decided to record the entire work, an undertaking that was bigger than they imagined at first. It entailed finding a good edition to begin with; finding a coach that really understood Baroque performance practice who would be willing to, of all things, work with a saxophone quartet; and then making the thousands of decisions involved in presenting a historically representative rendition that also bears the creative stamp of the New Century Saxophone Quartet. It should not be overlooked that throughout this process, the quartets manager, Robert Besen, was not merely supportive of taking on the entire "The Art of Fugue," but was downright persistent about it. The Breitkopf & Hrtel edition of "The Art of Fugue" was used as the basis for this recording, due to its close resemblance to original manuscript and first editions. The entire work was recorded, including J.S. Bachs setting (BWV 668) of the chorale, "Wenn wir in hchsten Nthen sein," which was added to the end of the manuscript by C.P.E. Bach with the exception of Contrapunctus No. 17. This fugue is not normally performed or recorded because it is set for two soprano and two baritone parts, and is thus very difficult for any standard ensemble to undertake, saxophone quartet included. Even with the omission of No. 17, the quartet discovered during the editing process that there was still too much music for a single CD. Because of this limitation, one of the recorded fugues had to be omitted for the final version of the disc. It was a difficult decision for the quartet as they love playing all of the fugues in concert but in the end it was decided to omit No. 18, Rectus and Inversus. As in Bachs original publication there are very few editing marks. Aside from a few articulations and basic ornamentations given by Bach, all other decisions regarding tempi, articulations, dynamics, phrasing, and expression are left to the performers. Where additional ornamentation was added, care was taken to make appropriate, clear choices, in concert with proper performance practice. All of the ornamentation, along with articulation choices and issues of rhythmic interpretation, were handled chiefly through the coaching of renowned Baroque flutist Stephen Preston. 

The New Century Saxophone Quartet met Preston in the summer of 1991 at Wildacres Retreat in the North Carolina mountains, where both the quartet and Preston were involved in separate workshops and master classes for their respective instruments. These workshops continued every summer and still continue to this day. When it came time to find a coach for this project, Preston was the obvious choice because of his amazing performances on the Baroque flute and his brilliant teaching style. In the summer of 2001 the quartet and Preston stayed on for an extra week at Wildacres and began work in earnest on the "The Art of Fugue" project. In all, the quartet coached with Preston for a week that summer and a week in the summer of 2002. Preston was also present for the recording sessions in Deventer, Holland, in January 2003. Bach composed the work in the key of D minor, with each voice covering a range of just under three octaves. The highest and lowest notes of each voice fall within the comfortable range of the corresponding saxophone, allowing the whole work to be kept in the original key. On very rare occasions a decision had to be made regarding an octave transposition, or trading of voices, and in a few of the fugues, where the closing cadences expanded to five or six voices, a part or two had to be left out. Otherwise the notes being played are exactly the ones Bach heard as he dictated the music to his son. The resulting performance by the quartet is one of great sonority and variety of color. These effects are enhanced in this setting due to the particulars of the saxophone consort one can hear the unique timbre of each particular voice in the contrapunctal sections and yet when the parts come together homophonically the ensemble has the ability to blend into a sonorous whole, with a sound not unlike a pipe organ. The range of expression and dynamics is quite large in the saxophone quartet, and the quartet clearly believes it is appropriate and possible to explore the extremes while maintaining an interpretation that is not overtly Romanticized.

In every possible way, this project has become something larger than could have been imagined, in its challenges and rewards, but also in some rather unusual ways. The most exciting of these is the commissioning of computer-generated animations created to be screened simultaneously with live performance of "The Art of Fugue." These animations have been commissioned from Misha Films, a New York-based new media 3-D animation and projection creation design house, and are being created as this recording goes to press, with the collaboration of Purdue Universitys media lab, the Envision Center. This project then is the culmination of over eight years studying, rehearsing, and performing Bach, and even in its "final" form on this disc represents a work in progress. As the quartet has discovered, one is never through learning Bach. Faced with the infinite possibilities of interpretation, one never plays it the same way twice. (Even in "extreme" interpretations, the music almost never suffers.) Also, one cannot spend this much time in the presence of the master without being fundamentally changed as a musician. The quartet has become keenly aware through this process that playing "The Art of Fugue" has changed everything the way they listen to each other, hear and experience an individual musical line and its relation to the surrounding parts, balance a chord or section of counterpoint, and even tune. 

The New Century Saxophone Quartet simply sounds different now, and they approach every piece, new and old, with a fresh perspective. It is their sincere desire to present the music of Bach in a way that is true to his intentions and the stylistic practices of the period, and yet with a vitality and freshness that can come from over 250 years of perspective. It is hoped you are as moved and inspired by the mastery of "The Art of Fugue" as they are. Please, enjoy!

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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus I
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus II
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus III
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus IV
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus V
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XIII
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XIV
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus VII
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus VIII
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus X
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus VI
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus IX
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XI
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XV
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XII
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XVI - Rectus
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XVI - Inversus
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    The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus XIX
  • 1
    The Art of Fugue: Coral

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