George Ritchie
Reviews - J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue
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Reviews of J. S. Bach's The Art of Fugue
 
Gramophone Magazine, July 2010
 
A lavish production, fully justified by a great performance from George Ritchie.
To all outward appearances – even the label on which it has been released – this would seem to be a filmed performance of The Art of Fugue. But that’s not the case at all. True, one of the three discs encased within a very hefty and attractive box is a DVD, butThe Art of Fugue itself appears on two audio CDs.
That’s no disappointment. American Bach specialist George Ritchie offers up such an intensely focused and directly communicative performance that it’s hard to think what any visual element could contribute other than providing an irritating distraction. Ritchie writes in the accompanying booklet that this is a work that “pleases the mind and the ear in equal measure” and in the DVD sets out his interpretative goal, hoping that listeners will be “thinking about the music, not what I’m doing to it”. As good as his word, Ritchie’s CD performances are of the type that demand the closest attention from listeners – if this was on film, it would be one best experienced with eyes firmly shut – and while his playing is neat and utterly devoid of idiosyncrasy, it draws the ear so fully into Bach’s music that I have no hesitation in describing this as a reference recording. Which is not to say that Ritchie is not guilty of the odd indiscretion – a strangely stiff and lumpy approach to Contrapunctus 11 and some waywardness in the Canon alla Ottava – but these barely ruffle the surface and any doubts are quickly smoothed over by the lovely organ sound and Ritchie’s subtle and highly sensitive use of registration, all details of which are mapped out in the booklet.
The contents of the DVD are a worthy accessory to the two CDs. On a practical level, navigation is poor with no real method, other than trial and error, of finding specific points on the disc; with two films and three hours’ playing time, that is a major drawback. But it’s worth persevering with random searches and copious use of the forward and backward buttons, for the first of those films is a tremendously illuminating and magnificently produced documentary on the background to the recording itself, with interviews with Christoph Wolff and Messrs Richards and Fowkes (who built the Arizona organ on which the recording was made), as well as with Ritchie himself enthusing about the work and, in one of the film’s more fascinating episodes, the completion of the final Fugue by Ritchie’s own teacher Helmut Walcha.
The second film is a section-by-section description of the work with Ritchie highlighting the problems (illustrated by the edition of the score used in the recordings) and giving his solutions to them; an indulgence which most performers would envy but which is justified here by the uniquely dedicated work of everyone involved in what is, for me, the finest recording of Bach’s Art of Fugue irrespective of media or instrument.
Marc Rochester
 
 
The American Organist, September 2012
 
JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH: THE ART OF FUGUE. George Ritchie, organist, with commentary by Christoph Wolff, Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes. III/70 organ of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, Scottsdale, Arizona (USA) (Richards, Fowkes & Co. Opus 14, 2006).
Organs featured in bonus tracks:

IV/81 Taylor & Boody Opus 9, 1985 (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.);

II/24 Bedient Opus 8, 1977 (Cornerstone, Lincoln, Nebraska);

IV/109 John Brombaugh & Associates Opus 26, 2986 (Church of Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee).

Fugue State Films FSF-DVD-0001 (2 CDs, 1 DVD). Fuguestatefilms.co.uk/shop
This excellent production features a comprehensive, authoritative documentary on Bach's consummate musical treatise on counterpoint, The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080. The two compact discs contain George Ritchie's performance of the complete work (with the unfinished ending of “Contrapunctus XIV”) as well as several other late Bach works, and Helmut Walcha's completion of “Contrapunctus XIV.”
The DVD contains a 90-minute documentary entitled Desert Fugue that features commentaries by Bach scholar Christoph Wolff, organbuilders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes, and George Ritchie. Ritchie provides detailed commentary on each of the 14 fugues and canons in a 111-minute Introduction to the Art of Fugue.
The accompanying booklet provides a succinct introduction to the work, commentary on the additional works on the second CD, Ritchie's personal comments about the work and the project, definitions of terms related to fugue and counterpoint, specifications of the featured organs, and specific registrations used in each piece.
George Ritchie's eleven-disc recording of the complete organ works of Bach played on several American organs built following historical principles (Raven OAR-875, 2003) has received high critical acclaim and remains one of the best representations on the current market. The present project is a fitting complement to Ritchie's previous work. He cites two primary influences on his recording of The Art of Fugue. The first is Helmut Walcha, the blind German organist who was one of the first to perform and record the complete Bach organ works and with whom Ritchie studied in 1964-65. Ritchie describes Walcha's method of learning Bach's music “from the inside out” by having a single line dictated to him, one bar or phrase at a time, memorizing each until the whole had been comprehended and memorized. Ritchie has applied this method to his own learning and preparation. The second influence was Christoph Wolff's National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Bach given at Harvard in the summer of 1977, emphasizing the importance of the application of historical materials in the process of comprehending and interpreting Bach's music. Ritchie also cites Harald Vogel, Quentin Faulkner, and the Bedient organ at Cornerstone in Lincoln as salient influences in his own work on this project.
The Desert Fugue segment of the DVD is divided into three sections: The Music, The Instrument, and The Legacy. Production director Will Fraser prefaces Part One with a brief introduction, followed by commentaries by Bach scholar Christoph Wolff and George Ritchie, in which they discuss Bach's presumed reasons for composing The Art of Fugue. Wolff states that in this work, Bach provides a systematic approach to fugal composition, using the many types of fugal procedures that had been developed up to that time. It is a “practical work with a deep theoretical facet.” Ritchie describes it as “a summation of polyphonic knowledge.” Wolff discusses modes and keys as they relate to the work. He states that Bach's use of open score was the common method of writing counterpoint; it did not necessarily mean that the work was to be performed as chamber music or that it is an abstract exercise. Both men speak of the ideal use of keyboard instruments in performing the work. Ritchie points out that all but the mirror fugues can be played by two hands: use of the pedals permits a single performer to play the entire work. He speaks of the unique challenges to the keyboard performer. Ritchie and Wolff suggest the organ as the preferred instrument, since it provides an abundance of color and clarity. The pedals can supply the lines unreachable by the hands as well as Bach's favored gravitas. Wolff briefly refers to 19th-century orchestrations, which, although interesting and sometimes attractive, were not Bach's intention. He discusses both versions of the work, the first completed in 1742, and the second, which is used in this recording, published posthumously in 1752. The video, which is well done throughout, gives close-up views of the 1752 facsimile.
Part Two discusses the choice of instrument in detail. The Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ at Pinnacle Presbyterian is based on 18th-century organs of Central Germany (particularly Silbermann) with which Bach was familiar. Both Richards and Fowkes comment in depth about their creative design philosophies as they are manifested in the Pinnacle organ. Several views of their workshop are illuminating, showing various facets of organ construction. They discuss the differences in pipe construction between North German and Central German builders, and how this influences registration. Ritchie points out that American organs built in the style of historical European models are more “user friendly” in terms of actions, pedalboards, and technical assists. This leads to a fascinating discussion of historic-inspired American organbuilding and how it relates to culture and European markets and styles.
In Part Three, Ritchie discusses articulation and touch in performing Bach's music. He offers an intriguing comparison with the clear articulation used by fine jazz musicians. Wolff discusses the final months of Bach's life, about which little is known. Bach was essentially a healthy, hearty man who planned to live longer than he did, and presumably expected to complete The Art of Fugue. Bach probably reasoned that his eye operation, which ultimately led to infection and death, would allow him to enjoy improved sight and allow him to continue working. Regarding “Contrupuntus XIV,” Wolff surmises that Bach would have produced at least a draft of the ending of the quadruple fugue before commencing the beginning, in order to ensure that all four voices could be combined. Thus, it is presumed that this draft has been lost. (At the conclusion of the DVD, Ritchie wistfully muses that the missing manuscript may yet be found.) Wolff mentions various attempted endings, stating that while each may have merit, none can conclusively replace what Bach may have written. Wolff also comments about the relationship of nature to the laws of polyphony, and how this impacted Bach's thinking and work.
George Ritchie's Introduction to the Art of Fugue offers a lucid analysis of each of the 14 fugues and canons, as well as an analysis of the overall structure of the work, illustrated by short excerpts performed at the organ. He states that The Art of Fugue is “one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the human mind,” while at the same time being aesthetically beautiful and dramatic. Its perfect balance between the horizontal interwoven melodies and vertical resultant harmonies make this music “for the total human being, not just the brain.” In his discussion of each piece, Ritchie provides analysis of the theme in all of its guises, variations, harmonic implications, and fugal procedures such as stretto, diminution, augmentation, inversion, and countersubjects. The verbal descriptions are complemented by video showing close-ups in the score of the particular lines or measures being described, using the Peters edition edited by Christoph Wolff, from which Ritchie performs. The video also provides close-up views of Ritchie's manual and pedal technique, itself a valuable teaching tool. Ritchie discusses differences between the 1742 and 1752 versions, playing examples that clearly demonstrate the changes Bach made in the later version. These include expanding endings, and the addition and reordering of the fugues. Ritchie discusses how Bach learned from earlier masters by copying their music, employing compositional devices from earlier works to his own music to enhance its beauty and impact. Ritchie discusses his reasons for using particular registrations for a given piece. He cites the fugues of de Grigny, in which the top two voices are played on a Cornet registration, the lower voices on a Cromorne and the bass on an 8' pedal stop. He adapts this model to some of Bach's fugues to heighten the clarity of voices. Ritchie discusses the use of the pedal to facilitate the playing of the mirror fugues, increase clarity, or provide gravitas. He discusses how he resolves the requirement of a cadenza in the second Canon. He interprets the titles of the four Canons. Finally, Ritchie discusses “Contrapunctus XIV.” By 1880, scholars had confirmed that the original fugue subject would fit with the other three subjects of the quadruple fugue. Ritchie substantiates Wolff's assumption that Bach must have completed at least a draft of the ending. He discusses Walcha's conclusion, which he feels is a logical and convincing solution.
Ritchie performs with elegance on the CD recording. His playing is naturally expressive, with rhythmic suppleness and vitality and with clear, unforced articulation. His intimate knowledge of the intricate interweaving of melodies results in clearly defined polyphony, the inner voices being as clearly discerned as the outer. He chooses registrations that are appropriate for each fugue from a single lovely string or principal stop to mutation combinations to the plenum, providing variety and interest throughout. The instrument itself is ideal for Bach's polyphony as well as melodic contours, with its clear, pure, naturally beautiful voicing. Bonus tracks on the second CD include late works previously recorded on the complete organ works series: Vor deinen Thron, BWV 668, Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, BWV 769a, Ricercar a 6 from Musikalisches Opfer, BWV 1079, and the Schübler Chorales, BWV 645-650. Walcha's completion of “Contrapunctus XIV” concludes the recording.
Ritchie presents his lecture-demonstration in a relaxed, conversational manner, using language that will be understood by the enlightened layman while being instructive to the student and professional. The analysis is not intended to be exhaustive, but it illuminates the salient features, techniques, and procedures employed by Bach, enabling the viewer to have a deeper understanding and appreciation of his music. It will also be a springboard for further investigation and study. While Ritchie's performance is authoritative musically, intellectually, and technically, one can derive great pleasure from simply listening, apart from knowledge or understanding. This production is an invaluable resource for all who are interested in the music of Bach, for any who perform or intend to perform Bach's The Art of Fugue (or any of the master's contrapuntal music), and for teachers and students in universities, workshops, or other pedagogical settings.
James Hildreth
 
 
Notes, the quarterly journal of the Music Library Association, June 2011

Johann Sebastian Bach. The Art of Fugue. George Ritchie. Fugue State Films FSF-DVD-0001 (2010), CD/DVD.

There is much to savor in this lavish package from Fugue State Films, but the main course is George Ritchie's magnificent recording of the Art of Fugue, made on the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. organ at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church, Scottsdale, Arizona.
Ritchie Professor of Organ Emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, chose to record the later version, for which Bach revised various pieces, rearranged the order, and added new works for a total of fourteen fugues and four canons.
In his essay "An Approach to the Art of Fugue," which is included in the booklet accompanying the two CDs and DVD, Ritchie credits the combination of Christoph Wolff's scholarship on the Art of the Fugue—including his publication of both the early and the final version—and the building of the organ based on central German organs of Bach's time by Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes in 2006 for leading him to fulfill the goal he had for decades of recording this version.
Another key figure in this endeavor is Helmut Walcha (1907-1991), a blind German organist who specialized in performing, recording, and teaching the organ works of J.S. Bach, who Ritchie studied with in the 1960s and to whom he dedicated this recording. Ritchie describes Walcha's completion of the fragmentary final fugue as "one of the most successful of several that have been published," and he includes his recording of it here as a bonus track (in addition to his recording of the unfinished final fugue in Bach's manuscript).
Due to the time constraints of the format, Ritchie was forced to add a second CD to accommodate all of the pieces. On the second CD, he includes selections under the heading Additional Late Works, all of which were previously released in 2003 on his 11-CD set J.S. Bach Organ Works Complete (Raven-875).
These performances were recorded on three different organs in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, and the works include Ricercar à 6 (from Musikalisches Opfer BWV 1079) and the six "Schübler" Chorales. Although it is nice to have a side helping of late Bach to go with the main course, these tracks mostly serve to make the performances and the sound of his work on the Art of Fugue even more brilliant by comparison.
Ritchie includes all the registrations and organ specifications—as well as a glossary of terms from his essays and notes—in the booklet, making this both a helpful and instructional guide.
The two CDs are complimented by a DVD, which includes a 90-minute documentary titled Desert Fugue (featuring Ritchie, Christoph Wolff, and organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes) and a 111-minute film of Ritchie giving a detailed introduction to all twenty movements of the Art of the Fugue.
A review of the content on the DVD is beyond the scope of this column. This recording will augment the appreciation and the understanding of The Art of Fugue for all listeners, and it will delight all who are fortunate enough to find it in the holdings of their local library. It might even inspire listeners to make a pilgrimage to Pinnacle Presbyterian in Scottsdale in order to experience the Richards, Fowkes, & Co. instrument in person.
Listening to this recording is itself a transporting experience.
Tom Caw
 
THE DIAPASON, November 2010
At the core of this recent release from Fugue State Films is a fine new solo organ recording of The Art of Fugue by George Ritchie, playing the 2006 Ricards, Fowkes organ at Pinnacle Presbyterian Church in Scottsdale, Arizona. However, in truth this is a veritable Art of Fugue cornucopia. In addition to the performance of the work itself, which was recorded in fall 2007 and spans about a CD and a half, there are performances of other late organ works of Bach – the chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit (placed right after the abrupt ending of the incomplete final movement of The Art of Fugue, in the manner suggested by Bach's heirs in the first edition of the work), the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, the Schübler Chorales, and the Ricercar from the Musical Offering – drawn mostly from George Ritchie's earlier recordings on the Raven label. These serve to place The Art of Fugue in context, both as a composition from a specific phase of Bach's life and career and, in particular, as an organ composition.
The second CD concludes with Dr. Ritchie's performance of Helmut Walcha's completion of the final Contrapunctus of The Art of Fugue. This is wisely placed away from the giant work itself, and thus is presented as a separate entity – an interesting and powerful gloss on Bach's counterpoint by a seminal Bach performer who was himself a great contrapuntist, composer, and improviser of counterpoint. Most especially, however, it is Ritchie's tribute to Walcha, who was his teacher, mentor, and inspiration, and to whom this recording is dedicated.
Ritchie describes, in the accompanying booklet and in the extraordinary DVD that forms the second major part of this set – about which more below – his encounter with Walcha's approach to learning counterpoint for performance, or, more meaningfully, for understanding and performance. This approach involves studying each voice separately before putting any voices together. Ritchie follows this approach in his own work on the contrapuntal organ music of Bach, and the fruits of this study are abundantly to be heard in this recording.
The clarity and lucidity of the counterpoint is astonishing. The lines of each contrapunctus are so manifestly separate independent melodies that the listener never feels the need to strain or labor to hear them as such. This also creates the pleasant illusion that it is equally easy for the performer, which of course it is not: it is an act of transcendent virtuosity. It is also a source of great rhetorical power in this music and in this performance.
Dr. Ritchie's articulations are clear and consistent, and never exaggerated or sound forced. In general, tempos are moderate. For me as a listener, these tempos are a great plus, and actually enhance excitement and drama, since they allow those attributes to arise out of the counterpoint and out of the ebb and flow of harmonic tension. Registrations are colorful, and again seem designed to enhance rather than obscure or in any way distract from the integrity of the lines. The recording serves as a fine introduction to the organs of Richards, Fowkes & Co.
The final element of this set – by no means an afterthought to the recorded performances – is a documentary DVD in two parts. The first part, about an hour and a half long, is a wide-ranging discussion about The Art of Fugue, Bach's life and music, the organ of Bach's time and the organ used in the recording. George Ritchie's history with the piece, his work with Helmut Walcha, and many other things relevant to this recording and to the great work. The participants in this segment include Bach scholar Christoph Wolff and organbuilders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes, as well as George Ritchie himself. It is, not surprisingly, interesting and informative.
But I want to mention something else about it: I reacted to it as being powerfully moving as well. The way the discussion was framed and carried out had the effect for me of delivering something like the following message: Bach was a person, albeit a very talented one; we are all people; we are all working together: each of us is part of the same fabric, the same web, the same picture. This is an elusive feeling that I try to capture myself whenever I can, and try to convey to my students. I have rarely found it evoked as strongly as it is in this short film. This comes about in part through simple things like the juxtaposition of pictures of Bach's church and Bach's town with pictures of Pinnacle Presbyterian and its desert environs. It is conveyed in the main, however, through the relaxed, joyous, humane, and serious but never somber demeanor of the participants.
The final element of this very full package is George Ritchie's nearly two-hour “Introduction to The Art of Fugue,” in which he goes through each constituent piece offering partly theoretical analysis – mostly about counterpoint, some about harmony or other things – and partly discussion of historical context, performance decisions, and other matters. These discussions are clear enough and sufficiently light on jargon that I believe they can be followed by viewers who do not already know much about counterpoint or The Art of Fugue – assuming that they are willing to listen with real attention and focus.
They also continue the relaxed, friendly, yet serious attitude found in the first section of the DVD. This segment gives the viewer the opportunity to watch Dr. Ritchie play – short examples – and correlate, for example, pair-wise fingerings and same-toe pedaling with the articulations that they create.
In keeping with the nature of this set – even the booklet is jam-packed with information, including stoplists, registrations, a glossary of terms used in the DVD, further analysis of all of the music found on the two CDs, and more. Furthermore, the Fugue State Films website has even more, with a fascinating link or two. Check it out!
-Gavin Black
Princeton Early Keyboard Center
 
Choir and Organ, July / August 2010
The vocabulary of modern documentary TV is deeply ingrained in our lives. It’s driven by a desire to hang on to the viewer at all costs – all too often the result is sound-bite scripts, frenetic editorial cutting and a concentration on arresting, but not always relevant, visual imagery. Fugue State Films’ Art of Fugue project is the absolute antithesis: conventional broadcasters would run a mile. The 2CD + DVD package is built around the US organist and pedagogue George Ritchie’s performance of Bach’s revised version, on the Richards, Fowkes organ of Pinnacle Presbyterian, Scottsdale, Arizona (with supplementary Bach works including Helmut Walcha’s completion of the final fugue, played on Taylor and Boody, Bedient and Brombaugh organs).
The audio tracks are complimented by a three-and-a-half hour DVD, Desert Fugue. In this documentary Ritchie and the doyen of Bach scholars, Christoph Wolff, are intercut as they discuss the meaning and impact of the work on the history of western music; organ builders Ralph Richards and Bruce Fowkes provide illumination on the organ of the Bach era (and modern US organ design); and finally, Ritchie and Wolff discuss the reception history of the Art of Fugue. Long pieces-to-camera are cut together with a linking narration by director Will Fraser that allows the story to unfold with the kind of pace and depth which the work’s rich complexities, and the protagonists’ detailed knowledge and experience, fully deserve. Fraser makes copious use of stills and recorded footage from Arizona, Leipzig, Naumburg, the Netherlands, England, and the Richards, Fowkes factory, to provide a visual counterpoint to the detailed narrative. To cap this, Ritchie sits at the Scottsdale console to provide nearly two hours of engaging, spontaneous bar-by-bar analysis, with helpful cutaways to the score; there is even a booklet with written notes and organ specifications.
Magnificent in its uncompromising approach, this remarkable production should be a set text for all university, college and conservatoire courses for performers and academics alike. ‘Lay’ people and Bach aficionados (with or without their own copy of the score) are certain to gain just as much pleasure and understanding of this monumental work from this endlessly absorbing set.
-Graeme Kay
More reviews: Organ Works Complete
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