DUO Stephanie & Saar’s third release on New Focus Recordings, The Art of Fugue, is the first ever complete piano duo recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s enigmatic final work.
|DUO Stephanie and Saar||3:35|
|06||Contrapunctus 6 a 4 in Stylo Francese|
Contrapunctus 6 a 4 in Stylo Francese
|07||Contrapunctus 7 a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem|
Contrapunctus 7 a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem
|08||Contrapunctus 8 a 3|
Contrapunctus 8 a 3
|09||Contrapunctus 9 a 4 alla Duodecima|
Contrapunctus 9 a 4 alla Duodecima
|10||Contrapunctus 10 a 4 alla Decima|
Contrapunctus 10 a 4 alla Decima
|11||Contrapunctus 11 a 4|
Contrapunctus 11 a 4
|12||Contrapunctus inversus 12 a 4 Forma recta|
Contrapunctus inversus 12 a 4 Forma recta
|13||Canon alla Ottava|
Canon alla Ottava
|14||Contrapunctus inversus 12 a 4 Forma inversa|
Contrapunctus inversus 12 a 4 Forma inversa
|DUO Stephanie and Saar||3:42|
|15||Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza|
Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza
|16||Contrapunctus 13 Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali Forma recta|
Contrapunctus 13 Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali Forma recta
|DUO Stephanie and Saar||2:24|
|17||Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta|
Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta
|18||Contrapunctus 13 Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali Forma inversa|
Contrapunctus 13 Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali Forma inversa
|DUO Stephanie and Saar||2:26|
|19||Contrapunctus 14 Fuga a 3  Soggetti (unfinished)|
Contrapunctus 14 Fuga a 3  Soggetti (unfinished)
|20||Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu|
Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu
DUO Stephanie & Saar’s third release on New Focus Recordings, The Art of Fugue, is the first ever complete piano duo recording of Johann Sebastian Bach’s enigmatic final work.
Dated 1748, scholars have understood The Art of Fugue as an academic endeavor by an aging master paying tribute to the fugue, which was by then falling out of fashion. Others consider the work as a sort of “Da Vinci Code” of numerology, puzzles and musical coding. The mystery of Contrapunctus 14, notable for both the inclusion of Bach’s name as a theme and for its unfinished state, adds to the work’s mythology and cult status.
Bach found fugues to be a source of endless creativity. The Art of Fugue, a collection of fourteen fugues and four canons, is an exploration of the full spectrum of contrapuntal possibilities, all derived from one monolithic theme in D minor. From a purely technical standpoint, Bach’s compositional prowess is in full display as he employs inversion, retrograde, augmentation, diminution, multiple fugue subjects, mirroring and canonic writing - all while creating an intense and emotionally gripping musical experience.Read More
In order to present the most dynamic range of sound possibilities, DUO Stephanie and Saar perform The Art of Fugue as four-hand, two piano and solo works.
The duo presents The Art of Fugue as a double CD comprising of two cohesive parts: CD 1: Contrapunctus 1-11 presents a gradual progression from simplicity to complexity.
Contrapunctus 1-4: Simple fugues, built on single subjects and their inversions.
Contrapunctus 5-7: Complex fugues that utilize both the fugue subject and its inversion simultaneously, in augmentation and diminution.
Contrapunctus 8-11: Expanded double and triple fugues that implement multiple fugue subjects at once.
Bach invoked a wide variety of styles in these fugues. Contrapunctus 1, noble and stately, is immediately followed by a quirky gigue-like dance. Other notable fugues include Contrapunctus 6, In stylo Francese, a boisterous French Overture that overflows with rich ornamentation. Contrapunctus 9, fleeting and capricious, is performed on two pianos for clarity and speed. Contrapunctus 11, a stately processional and the most complex fugue of the entire set, leads Part 1 to a vigorous climax.
CD 2: Contrapunctus 12-14 and the 4 Canons. Mirror fugues and canons in alternation, culminating with the unfinished Contrapunctus 14.
Contrapunctus 12, inversus a 4, Forma recta
Canon alla Ottava (Saar Ahuvia)
Contrapunctus 12, inversus a 4, Forma inversa
Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza (Stephanie Ho) Contrapunctus 13, Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali, Forma recta Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta (Saar Ahuvia) Contrapunctus 13, Fuga inversa a 2 Clavicembali, Forma inversa Contrapunctus 14, Fuga a 3  Soggetti
Epilogue: Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu (Stephanie Ho)
Mirror fugues are a pair of fugues that are mirror images of one another. In the two mirror fugues, Contrapunctus 12 recta and inversa and Contrapunctus 13 recta and inversa, Bach employs “mirroring” technique not just with the fugue subjects but with voice entries, sequences, cadences and key relationships. Due to their density, the mirror fugues are performed on two pianos, including Bach’s own original transcription of Contrapunctus 13 for two harpsichords.
The canons, or “games in musical mathematics” show Bach’s penchant for whimsy and improvisation. They are less rigorous and serve as interludes to the dense mirror fugues. The Art of Fugue reaches its apex with Contrapunctus XIV, the incomplete fugue with Bach’s signature B- A-C-H theme. After a moment of silence, the entire work concludes with the lamenting Canon in Augmentation, a poignant farewell.
Produced by DUO Stephanie & Saar, Ryan Streber and Daniel Lippel
Recorded, mixed and mastered by Ryan Streber
Edited by Zach Herchen and Ryan Streber
Photos by Masataka Suemitsu
Recorded at Oktaven Audio, Mt. Vernon, NY
on September 17, October 22 and December 8, 2016
Special thanks to Michael Merck at Knockdown Center and Rachana Vajjhala
Pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia collaborate as DUO Stephanie and Saar in performances noted for their artistic versatility, elegance and intellectual curiosity.Their 2016 performance at Makrokosmos Project in Portland, OR led Oregon Arts Watch to proclaim that “in the hands of (Ho & Ahuvia) the work (Philip Glass’ Four Movements) emanated a sheer joy of piano sound.” Also noted was their “masterly” performance of George Crumb’s Otherworldly Resonances which “scintillated with dense tintinnabulations reminiscent of Olivier Messiaen’s battiest religious ecstasies.”
The duo’s 2015 performance at the Sarajevo Chamber Music Festival featured George Crumb’s dazzling Celestial Mechanics for amplified piano and other cutting-edge American works to international acclaim by Radio Sarajevo. “Stephanie and Saar’s last night’s performance once again recalled all the epithets of elegant and innovative, that have been following them throughout their career.” In celebration of György Kurtág’s 90th birthday in 2015, DUO Stephanie and Saar toured with “Hommage à J.S.B.”, a program that featured Kurtág’s Játékok alongside selections from Bach’s Art of Fugue. Their program also featured the dazzling four hand transcription of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 59 No. 3 “Razumovsky.”
Other recent performances include Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos, K. 365 with Musikkreis Horgen (Switzerland), PianoForte Salon Live on Chicago’s WFMT 98.7, Dranoff 2 Piano Foundation’s “Film Goes Classical: A 2 Piano Celebration of the Movies” at Miami’s Coral Gables Arts Cinema and a live concert on All Classical Portland’s Thursdays @ Three.
As probing recording artists, the duo explores repertoire with concomitant classical and contemporary sensibilities. Beethoven Dialogues, their 2014 album featuring Beethoven Quartets Op. 18 Nos. 1, 4 and 6 in rarely heard four hand arrangements, was performed in its entirety at New York City’s (le) poisson rouge and chosen as Album of the Week on WQXR. Bach Crossings, the duo’s 2012 album featuring György Kurtág’s illuminating transcriptions of Bach, continues to receive acclaim. International Piano Magazine states, “It is clear from the precision and elegant phrasing on this disc that this is a tight partnership between..."
Highlights from their eclectic programming include a jazz-inspired concert at the South Miami- Dade Cultural Arts Center featuring the world premiere of Fantasia de Très Mundos by Cuban- American jazz pianist Martin Bejerano. In celebrating the 100th anniversary of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, DUO Stephanie and Saar toured Rite in four-hand, two-piano and mixed ensemble arrangements. Multiple collaborations with Michael Linville and the New World Symphony Percussion Consort featured Linville’s own arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and André Boucourechliev’s aleatoric fantasy piece Archipel I. The duo takes special pride in a performance at the residence of the United States Ambassador in Berlin, Germany, featuring works by Henry Martin (US), Avner Dorman (Israel) and Felix Mendelssohn.
DUO Stephanie and Saar are the artistic directors of Makrokosmos Project, a music festival in Portland, Oregon dedicated to contemporary American music and performances by Oregon-based performers and composers.(www.makrokosmosproject.org). Saar Ahuvia, a native of Israel, studied at Israel's Tel Aviv Academy and Switzerland's Schaufhausen Conservatory before coming to the United States to pursue a Graduate Performance Diploma with Leon Fleisher at Peabody Institute. Stephanie Ho, of Taiwanese descent, grew up in Portland, Oregon before obtaining degrees from Oberlin College and Northwestern University. She received a Graduate Performance Diploma from Peabody Institute, under the direction of Julian Martin.
Stephanie and Saar, who are married to each other, reside in New York City. http://www.stephsaarduo.com
In their liner notes for this extraordinary release, the piano duo of Stephanie and Saar (as they prefer to be called, rather than by their last names) say some things I’ve been thinking myself for quite some time, namely, that if The Art of Fugue is to be a performance piece and not just an academic instruction book, you need to do much more with it that is normally done.
What is “normally done” is to play the fugues in a flat manner, with no dynamics changes, musical phrasing or even change of tempo. Stephanie and Saar imply that this is flat-out wrong. To quote:
…some scholars see The Art of Fugue as an academic endeavor by an aging master paying tribute to the fugue, which was by then falling out of fashion… To keep things even more fluid and ambiguous, Bach does not specify the instrumentation or the ordering of the work, nor does he indicate any tempo, dynamics or interpretative instructions… As a piano duo, exploring The Art of Fugue is especially gratifying as it allows us to perform the work in endless combinations and possibilities. We perform selections from The Art of Fugue as four-hand pieces, a few on two pianos and the two-voiced canons as solo works…Contrapunctus XIV, the incomplete fugue with Bach’s signature B-A-C-H theme, is the final Contrapunctus. As a postlude, we present the Canon in Augmentation, which we hear as Bach’s final, lamenting farewell.
But these words, heartening as they are, scarcely prepare one for the delights to be heard within. Yes, they perform some of the fugues in a slow tempo, as is considered normal, but not at a funereal pace. They consistently enliven the musical line with gradations of tone and touch, even introducing moments of rubato into the music to make it breathe. Their vision is of an Art of Fugue that is a work of performance art, not an academic piece to be listened to reverently or, as they also put it in the notes, as “a sort of ‘Da Vinci Code’ of numerology, puzzles and musical coding.” In short, they like the music, and they want you to like it, too.
And what a wonderful ride it is! How much more interesting these fugues are when some of them have their tempos picked up, the music gently nudged forward by two musical minds thinking as one. And, when played in this manner, there are further delights to discover: for instance, how Contrapuntus 6 sounds like an extension of Contrapuntus 5, except that Stephanie and Saar play it almost as an Italian Siciliana, with a rhythmic swagger that delights the ear. This is creative music-making of an extraordinarily high level. The Canon alla Ottava is no less than a swaggering tarantella. And so they go through the entire series, almost daring the listener to stop them from enjoying what they’re doing.
To return to the original concept of the series, it’s quite possible that the aging Bach, feeling his mortality, wanted to pass along a sort of “fugue textbook” to future generations, and that was all. No hidden messages or surprise packages included. Certainly, even his sons had a hard time selling people on this work. They published it it at their own expense since no publisher in Germany was interested in a huge book of fugues, all in D minor, with only three Canons to lighten the load. Over the course of the time it was in print, The Art of Fugue sold a whopping 53 copies. That’s all, folks. 53. Think about that for a minute. I’ll bet you even the worst and dullest recording of this work has sold more than 53 copies.
Hopefully, this one will sell a great deal more than that. The goal is to get the word out there. Listen to it, love it, and tell others about it. You’re not going to get much traction from the classical “press,” which is primarily British and primarily focused on English musicians. This recording isn’t glamorous enough to be nominated for a Grammy. And the performances are too lively to be played on classical radio stations, whose goal is to numb and traumatize their listeners into not thinking—about music, or anything else for that matter.
Stephanie and Saar have created a true masterpiece here. I’m sure they must have spent countless hours working these fugues out on the keyboard, deciding exactly what tempos, dynamics and phrasing they wanted to use, yet it all sounds spontaneous, as if one pianist with four hands just sat down and sight-read the music, giving it his or her personal interpretation. And please don’t lecture me on how using a small band of diverse instruments “helps” you hear the voices of the fugues more clearly. You couldn’t possibly hear them more clearly than they are here. Even the last unfinished fugue has a swagger you never hear when it is played. I was rather surprised to learn that this was the first-ever recording of the work by a piano duo, but I suppose most other piano duos are more interested in glittering, flashy music to entertain people, not meaty music that requires thinking power.
This one is going into my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide. That’s how good it is.
—© 1.1.2017, Lynn René Bayley, The Art Music Lounge
Johann Sebastian Bach's 1748 The Art of Fugue (New Focus Recordings FCR 181, 2-CDs) is one of a handful of his most sublime works. He composed it in his final years, a part here and there unfinished, never specifying the instrumentation or tempo, yet giving us a soaring set of 14 fugues and 4 canons based on a single theme. There is nothing quite like it anywhere in the cannon of great works. I've had various versions of it throughout my lifetime. The mostly single piano four-hand version by DUO Stephanie & Saar rivals and possibly surpasses them all,
Why? The utter seriousness of the music, its incredible power is given to us undiluted, aesthetically sound yet not overly florid, tempos seeming just right, now lingering and contemplative, now expressing great depth of feeling and strength. The notes themselves are the central focus, with enough interpretive feeling but never too much. The parts are articulated with a clarity of purpose so that we continually hear the equal unfolding of fugal voices, never missing the contrapuntal whole that is so critical for a full understanding of this masterpiece.
The fugal Bach surpasses its times to speak across all time. Indeed the "Art" is within that select grouping as perhaps the highest of expressions of Bach's razor-sharp otherworldliness. Words cannot begin to do justice to the music.
All I can do is point you towards this version. Your ears will do the rest. Let your mind boggle!
— Grego Applegate Edwards, Gapplegate Modern Music Review, 6.16.2017
I spent a year analyzing Bach’s Art of Fugue as an undergraduate, so it is fair to say that I’m passionate about the work and a bit picky about its performance. For their third New Focus CD, DUO Stephanie & Saar present the work in its entirety on piano instead of harpsichord, leaving the last fugue where Bach did (unfinished), but including “Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu,” a gentle yet substantial epilogue by Stephanie Ho. This solution works at least as well as what is done on other recordings, which is to leave the final fugue unfinished but include Bach’s final chorale prelude, “Before Your Throne I Come,” as a postlude.
The duo’s playing is detailed and deliberate rather than showy, with the pianists taking pains to make all of the counterpoint clear. Since this is what the piece principally is about, it is a smart tactic to employ.
Sometimes folks grouse about the amount of recordings of standard repertoire, asking,”Do we really NEED more Bach CDs?” When it comes to a pliable and fascinating work such as this, especially when it is so well played by its performers, my answer is a resounding yes.
— Christian Carey, ChristianCarey.com, 6.9.2017
One of Bach’s last works (It is dated 1748) was thought for many years to have been a sort of academic thesis which was not meant for performance. Even though it has received performances it is problematic in many ways for performers and listeners. it has spawned many different approaches to this score which specifies no instrumentation, no ordering to the separate movements, and leaves it’s last fugue tantalizingly incomplete.
There have been many orchestrations for ensembles ranging from various chamber groupings to full orchestra. It has been done on harpsichord, organ and piano, organ, string quartet, brass ensemble, saxophone quartet to name a few. In fact all of these approaches would seem perfectly appropriate and authentic within the context of baroque performance practice. Undoubtedly we can expect more of this pluralistic approach to come to terms with Bach’s final utterance.
Sometimes the most salient characteristic of a recording of this work is about a new orchestration or some new scholarship, including yet another effort to complete the fugue which Bach left incomplete in the manuscript. In this two disc recording the motivation seems to be simple clarity. Duo Stephanie and Saar (pianists Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) perform the pieces on piano 4 hands, two pianos and solo piano as befits their artistic vision. They order the pieces by playing the first 12 fugues (or contrapuncti, as Bach refers to them) followed by alternately performing the four canons in between the remaining fugues and ending with the Canon in Augmentation to create a sense of an arch of unity with increasing complexity followed by the comparatively simple postlude of the final canon. As with many of the recordings Stephanie and Saar choose to leave the last fugue incomplete as Bach left it which is slightly jarring, leaving the sensation of having missed a step in the descent of a staircase but the final canon then does serve to bring the listener down gently.
Not until the minimalist movement would we see such a long focus on a single key (D minor), a potential deal breaker for a lesser composer. However the lucidity of these performances and recordings allows the listener to focus on the beautiful intricacy of counterpoint that represents one of the pinnacles of western musical art. Actually I have found that this recording works as well with focused listening as it does as background music where its energy sneaks in to your consciousness in a different but no less exhilarating way. This is doubtless due to the quality of interpretation.
Nothing flashy here, no overblown musicological perspectives, just strong playing by artists who clearly know and love this music. The Art of Fugue is not the easiest of Bach’s works to appreciate. Indeed it took this listener many years and multiple different recordings to finally grasp the depth of the work. And while it may not have been intended for performance per se this recording does a good job of finding the unity in these contrapuntal etudes which are effectively a summing up of the techniques of the high baroque era. Stephanie and Saar take us on a wonderful journey, one you will want to take many times.
- Allan J. Cronin, New Music Buff, 7.21.2017
Duo Stephanie & Saar have taken a novel approach to their latest recording project Bach – The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080 (New Focus Recordings FCR181). Taking advantage of their duo nature, they perform some selections as four hands, some as two pianos and the simpler two-voice canons as solos.
The sheer weight of the genius behind the music makes focusing on any other aspect of the performance nearly impossible. As one of Bach’s final utterances, unfinished at that, it reveals the ability of this composer to think about musical development forwards, backwards, inverted, expanded and contracted, and most often in some combination of these.
In this respect the work is very much like the Goldberg Variations, where a good performance quickly yields to the content of the music while the performer is lost to the larger presence of the art form.
The Duo Stephanie & Saar (their first names) are highly disciplined and always turn their skills to the contrapuntal possibilities Bach has laid out in the score, regardless of whether it’s for two voices or four. They keep expression to a polite minimum, revealing the beauty of the growing complexity in the larger fugues.
The two-disc set is one you know you’ll play many times, waiting to find newly revealed truths.
— Terry Robbins, 8.30.2017, The Whole Note
Whilst performing Bach on the piano is hardly controversial in our rather pluralist age, it is always intriguing to hear how different pianists tackle the challenge of transposing Bach to modern instruments, and particularly how they respond to the challenges and problems presented by Bach's works. Two new sets have recently come my way, the piano duo of Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia performing Bach's The Art of Fugue on one and two pianos from New Focus Recordings, and pianist Sonya Bach performing six of Bach's keyboard concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra, plus the Italian Concerto on Rubicon.
Bach's The Art of Fugue is a famous problem work, not only the challenge of deciding what instruments to use in performance given Bach's lack of specification, but the fact that the work is famously unfinished. Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia perform the work on two pianos, though their approach is quite eclectic, Contrapunctus 1 to 8, 10 and 11 are performed with two pianists at one piano, whilst Contrapunctus 9, 12 (recta & inversa), 13 (recta & inversa) are performed on two pianos. The canons are performed as solo piano pieces. The unfinished fugue is left unfinished, stopping mid air and the work finishes with a solo performance of the Canon per ugmentationem in Contrario Motu.
The two pianists have an admirable uniformity of touch so that it sounds like one four-handed player, and their approach blends period and modern. The essential touch is modern, but there is a nice clarity to it. There is pedalling, so the result is more romantic and not as austere as some performers of Bach on the modern piano. When it comes to fugue subjects they seem to like a uniformity of tone and articulation, so that the result can often seem quite a uniform texture rather than different elements of the fugue standing out. The first two piano piece of the sequence, Contrapunctus 9, really makes a glorious noise.
These are beautifully fluent performances, ideal for someone who likes quite a modern sound in their Bach, but I have to confess that I like a slightly more analytic approach to Bach on the piano with less of the modern romantic styling. — Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill, 9.21.2017
Duo Stephanie & Saar (Stephanie Ho and Saar Ahuvia) offers a performance for piano four hands (Contrapunctus 9, 12, and 13 are done on two pianos; the canons are solo piano). For the most part, their interpretation responds very well to the score: tempos are right, articulation and phrasing appropriate, and occasionally there’s some attempt to emphasize the stylistic variety Bach builds into the score.
But there are a few missteps. Contrapunctus 4 is too speedy and flippant, though the “cuckoo” motif Bach that introduces makes that approach plausible. The sudden eruption of hard-bitten staccato in Contrapunctus 14, when the B-A-C-H motif is introduced, is wrong-headed and creates exactly the wrong expressive effect; elsewhere the interpretation is somber and contemplative, as it’s supposed to be. They perform the two-keyboard arrangement of Contrapunctus 13, which I’ve not heard in a while—here they introduce a lot more variation in the expression and phrasing than anywhere else. I’m not sure why they didn’t perform the whole thing on two pianos, though; the two instruments would allow for more contrapuntal clarity than they get with only one instrument.
© 12.29.2017 American Record Guide, Rob Haskins