Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 - 1750): Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), arranged for small string ensemble. Performed by Musica Antiqua Köln (Cologne), directed by Reinhard Goebel [Reinhard Goebel and Hajo Bäss, baroque violins; Karlheinz Steeb, baroque viola; Phoebe Carrai, baroque violoncello; Andreas Staier and Robert Hill, harpsichords (both made by Keith Hill of Grand Rapids, Michigan, after 18th century European models)]. Recorded at the Friedrich-Ebert-Halle in Hamburg-Harburg, Germany, in 1984. First released on Deutsche Grammophon Archiv in 1984 and re-released several times with varying covers (the version I own has the catalogue number 431 704-2, but this has been superceded by the Archiv Masters version). Total playing time: 75'40".
My experience with this CD has been similar to what went on between me and Thomas Mann's novel "Doctor Faustus": When I first bought it many years ago, I was motivated by enthusiasm for all things Bach and baroque but had no idea what the music would be like. I took it home, listened to it a few times on the inferior equipment which was available to me back then, was horrified and disappointed to find the disc full of "absolute music" which I absolutely failed to understand, and put the CD away somewhere in my storage cupboard for more than a decade. Over the years I then listened to hundreds of "early music" CDs, including studying the essays in the booklets, and also read some biographies of baroque musicians (including the Bach biographies by Prof. Martin Geck and Prof. Christoph Wolff). Maybe this prepared me really to "hear" The Art of Fugue for the first time. At all events, when I finally took the CD out of its dark recess and listened to it again after all those years, it finally "hit" me - just like Thomas Mann's novel, which I only began to enjoy after failing to comprehend and leaving it aside for around 30 years!
Of course, it seems that Bach's "Art of Fugue" was most probably intended to be played (if it should be played at all rather than just read and studied) on a keyboard instrument, and any search of Amazon's classical music databank will reveal a large number of recordings on the harpsichord, the organ or the piano. (Perhaps the most celebrated harpsichord version is that by Davitt Moroney for Harmonia Mundi France J.S. Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge, where Moroney has attempted to complete the defective last fugue.) But Reinhard Goebel certainly argues quite cogently for an ensemble version, although he admits that, as with practically any other version, compromises are necessary - such as using a second harpsichord where Bach presumably originally intended either a two-manual harpsichord or four-hand music played on a single instrument. However, it is not so much Goebel's argumentation which gets to me but his interpretation which is a paragon of absolute clarity and really lays bare about as much of the structure and purpose of Bach's great theoretical work as a performance can. The playing of all those involved is superb, with particular praise for Goebel himself on the first violin, and all this is supported by Deutsche Grammophon's usual impeccable engineering. Yes, the sounds can occasionally seem harsh, and the comparatively low pitch of the original instruments may seem strange to those who are not used to it, but if I could only find the time, I think I could see myself listening to this over and over again - and quite possibly approaching a kind of ecstasy induced not by anything dangerous but simply by the purity of Bach's absolute music and Goebel's absolute interpretation.
So, if you are new to Bach, to the Art of Fugue and to baroque counterpoint, you may find, as I did, that this is too difficult. But don't give up! This may turn out, one day, to be the next best thing to the music of the heavenly spheres.