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
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
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