There are many apocryphal stories in the classical-music world, but the one in which Frederick the Great challenged Bach to improvise a six-part fugue on a theme of the king's own invention is true, and The Musical Offering was, after a period of further reflection, the result. As with all the works of Bach's later years, the work is both great art and a "teaching piece," which shows everything that he thought could be done with the king's theme. The Trio Sonata based on the theme is the only major piece of chamber music from Bach's last decades in Leipzig, and that makes the work and essential cornerstone of any Bach collection. This performance, led by Neville Marriner, is both polished and lively, and very well recorded. At a "twofer" price, coupled with The Art of Fugue, it's the preferred version of the work on modern instruments.
There's nothing at all wrong with Maurizio Pollini's 2009 performance of Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. The Italian pianist's intellectual lucidity, interpretive clarity, and technical virtuosity are apparent in every prelude and fugue, and his probing insights and penetrating analysis inform every note. However, there is almost nothing right with the sound quality of the recording. The piano sounds too distant, making it hard to hear precisely what Pollini is doing, but oddly, the ambient sound is too present, making every extraneous noise too loud. One should not hear the pedals being pressed and lifted, much less the clatter of the hammers and the twanging of the strings above the sound of the music. Worse yet, one can hear what sounds like every breath Pollini takes nearly as loudly as every note he plays. These are all grievous flaws that should have been eliminated, and their presence fatally undermines the brilliance of Pollini's performances. A reengineered version of these performances would be most welcome, but the present recording is so flawed that it virtually destroys Pollini's playing.
Harpsichordist Martha Cook here records Bach's Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 (The Art of the Fugue), with a specific interpretive framework in mind. The work, Cook believes, was devotional and intimate in intent; it is, she writes, a "musical prayer," and it embodies the parables and exhortation found in the biblical Book of Luke, 14:27-35. Interested readers are invited to consult the booklet for more details. Making the supposition work involves discarding the version of the work published after Bach's death by C.P.E. Bach and others, and it also involves some of the numerology that so often seems to crop up in connection with Bach's larger works. There's some justification in earlier German music for regarding Bach's instrumental music in this programmatic way; Bach would have known the Biblische Historien keyboard sonatas of 1700 by one of his key predecessors, Johann Kuhnau. But what's missing is any evidence of why Bach, by the end of his life a revered figure, might have wanted to embed secret messages in Die Kunst der Fuge. The unalloyed good news is that you can disregard the stated method of interpretation and listen to the performance in the abstract. It's very powerful.