Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080
Bachs Die Kunst der Fuge, Part 2
Continue from Part 1
Donald Satz wrote (December 31, 2000):
After the four 'simple' fugues are three 'stretto' or 'counter' fugues known as Contrapunctus V, VI, and VII. These stretto fugues are more complicated than the simple ones and involve inversion, diminution (twice as fast), and augmentation (twice as slow). Contrapunctus V displays the direct and inverted theme, VI adds diminution, and VII also has augmentation; therefore, the complexity of the music continues to grows.
Contrapunctus V exhibits the subject in counterpoint with itself at distances of one-half bar, full bar, and one and one-half bars. The music is very uplifiting, poignant, and of moderate tempo.
Aldwell's version of Contrapunctus V is a relatively somber and introspective one; a hard sadness is very prevalent. It starts off beautifully with fine mystery, but the reading soon sounds austere without much lift to it. I enjoy Aldwell here very much, but there is a missing element. Listen to Robert Hill and hear the pure optimism in his reading; Aldwell doesn't have it covered and also does not replace it with a viable alternative.
Hans Fagius is quick and starts off in a powerful fashion but then settles into a less demonstrative mode. I find his reading of a fairly high quality with some muddy sound and moderately effective uplifting passages; this is a somewhat generic performance. I would have preferred that Fagius take a stronger direction.
Kei Koito provides a full and powerful sound. No matter, the performance is a messy one and rather unmusical, monotonous, and relentless - a disposable performance which Fagius easily surpasses.
Marie-Claire Alain is very slow and austere. It's not one of the more optimistic readings, but it is emotionally rich. I place Alain at Aldwell's level.
Gould, on organ, performs well. He gives a quick, bouncy, and thoroughly optimistic interpretation. I'm afraid I think of it as a Bach "Lite" performance, although certainly in the upper rung of that category.
Rinaldo Alessandrini employs a variety of instruments which has the advantage of highlighting the counterpoint and stretti. My reservation is that the juxtaposition of one instrument against another does not always sound idiomatic to my ears - the matches are not close to perfect. Phantasm plays fast and in a somewhat cavalier manner. The reading is not haunting or particularly uplifting, nor as good as Alessandrini. Also, if a stringed version with speed is wanted, the Keller Quartett gives much more expressiveness and meaning to the music.
These are the versions I consider excellent: Kenneth Gilbert gives a performance of serious intent with a fine level of optimism; it's a thorougly enjoyable and interesting reading. The ALSQ recorder version is quite haunting with outstanding optimism and subtle joy. Joanna MacGregor give the "dream" performance of the group; hers is reading which takes me to the land of tender enchantment with its soft shades and prevalent legato. Tatiana Nikolayeva is mad and resolved to vent; it's a very distinctive reading short on joy. Evgeni Koroliov uses a staccato approach and fast tempo which work wonderfully; this reading has forward momentum in abundance.
The outstanding versions are from Moroney, Leonhardt, Hill, Savall, and the Keller Quartett. Leonhardt fully invests his reading with aristocracy, seriousness of purpose, and an inexorable quality. At the same time, the pure joy in his performance is infectious. Moroney is about perfect; his blend of austerity and joy is masterful. Hill's interpretation is fascinating. No version is more joyous than his, but what makes his version special is what he does before any optimism enters into the fugue. He provides the first minute of music with an anticipation of the joy coming up without revealing it at all. I don't know how he does this, but his relatively 'bright' sound must help. Savall starts off with a consort approach which is haunting and mesmerizing; then the brass enter and the performance takes on heroic proportions. The Keller Quartett's quick reading is the most poignant of those reviewed; the counterpoint is superb.
Contrapunctus VI is the first fugue to use diminution and is highly ceremonial in the manner of a French overture with its dotted rhythms and flourishes. This is very interesting music which can handle a wide variety of interpretations. By *interesting*, I mean that it is enjoyable simply on the basis of its structure, and detail is the crucial element in allowing Bach's structure to come through to the listener. The work also has wonderful melodic phrases and passages.
None of the 17 versions is less than rewarding. Joanna MacGregor takes a relatively serene approach; her detail is admirable, her poetry excellent, her tempo about average. I would have preferred more strength to her interpretation. Koito provides an organ version which some might consider to constitute "a lot of noise"; I can't deny there's some merit in that view, but she has strong insights about the music. Also, there are passages where the majesty of her performance can not be bettered. The Keller Quartett is highly detailed. I feel that their quick performance is well short of excellence based on a low degree of variety of expression; I had trouble maintaining interest. Switch to Nikolayeva and I think it's clear that she gives a variety of expression which leaves the Keller Quartett at the gate. Phantasm's performance is similar to the Keller in terms of tempo and relative lightness of mood, but they are more interesting and varied. Robert Hill's version is very enjoyable, but he does not convey the wealth of expression that I get from Moroney or Gilbert.
The excellent performances come from Gilbert, Leonhardt, Aldwell, and Alain. It's interesting to note than Leonhardt often applies a 'galloping' pace; I'm not entirely won over by the approach, but his interpretation has the usual incisiveness and depth that's been consistent up to this point. Gilbert is a little less rich sounding and uplifting than Moroney. Aldwell's is a serious interpretation with superb highlighting of the music's heroic elements and optimism. Alain starts off in such an austere, harsh, and somewhat unmusical fashion. Then, the optimism, just at the right point, enters one's bloodstream; the contrast is wonderful.
Moroney, Nikolayeva, Koroliov, Gould, and Fagius give outstanding performances. Moroney essentially provides a role-model reading which perfectly blends austerity with optimism. Nikolayeva is ever so slow, exquisitely detailed, and conveys an emotional range second to none. Hers is also the most poignant version of those reviewed. Koroliov is just as slow and effective as Nikolayeva; he is more focused on the destination while Nikolayeva always takes in the local scenery. Gould, on organ, takes the heroic approach superbly and also displays a great deal of expressive variety including tenderness and joy. Fagius gives us a quick reading with a rhythmic pulse that is irresistabe to me; he also delivers such a supreme optimism that I can't get it out of my head.
More outstanding performances come from Alessandrini, the ALSQ, and Savall. Alessandrini's multiple instrument account is stunning in the detail and interaction of the oboes/bassoon with the strings. It is a haunting interpretation of great depth. The ALSQ is the most effectively uplifting version of those reviewed; right from the start, there is a glow and optimism which never quits as the movement progresses. Majesty and melancholy are the key ingredients of Savall's consort reading; then, when the uplifting passages arrive, they are so effective in contrast to the melancholy. Savall's slow paced reading is muchmore rewarding than Phantasm's lighter and quicker consort performance.
Contrapunctus VII is even more interesting than VI in that it uses augmentation in addition to diminution and inversion. The music is not as demonstratively uplifiting as in Contrapunctus VI; subtlety of expression is the key to conveying the optimism to the listener. In fact, my perception is that this fugue's emotional pallete is harder to convey that most of the other fugues. The performers need to dig deeply into the music and carry its themes to the surface. If not done well, the music can drone on and on. And that's what happens with a few of the versions reviewed.
The ALSQ is in this "droning on" category. They do not provide fine characterization, and those recorders keep going at it; this is a surface reading. Gould, on organ, reveals a much wider and deeper emotional richness, and his is not even one of the best versions. Koito has an entirely different set of problems. Her textures have all the clarity of mud; it isn't easy to get a handle on either the technical or emotional aspects of her performance; it's like walking through a thick glaze. This has been a major problem of Koito's performances up to this point, and her Contrapunctus VII is an excellent example. She's often too thick, loud, and unmusical.
Alessandrini has generally provided the greatest variety of instrumentation and it has had the advantage of highlighting what each voice is doing. In this fugue, there's a flute, oboe, viola, bassoon, cello, harpsichord, violin, etc. That makes for a large degree of variety. But - the performance conveys so much less detail than would be expected. To some degree, it's because I feel the right instruments are not playing at the right moments. Also, Alessandrini and friends don't strike at the heart of music's core. Savall and company give another very slow performance which strikes me as being closer to a funeral dirge than an examination of human spirit. From my perspective, it just never takes off.
Fagius is neither demonstrative nor subtle; his detail is decent, his speed average. This is the all-purpose performance sure to elicit moderate enjoyment but nothing more. Fagius does not dig deeply at all. Now that I think of it, all-purpose has sort of been the foundation for Fagius up to this point. Good feelings from this approach can only last so long. Switch to Gilbert and a very real "personality" emerges from the opening bars (he sounds real good).
Alain's performance employs a fast tempo which seems to fly at times without perfect symmetry. Effective in spots, I don't sense that the reading hangs together very well. Aldwell is significantly faster than Alain; he's racing throughout the fugue. It sounds as if he's desperate to unload the music as quickly as possible; I don't like his interpretation at all although I admire his risk taking. MacGregor is as fast as Aldwell, but softer in tone. Not as extreme as Aldwell, her results are better with some effective optimism revealed. However, she's much too demure and fast to provide an excellent reading.
A very good version comes from Moroney. This is the first time I've not considered a performance of his to be excellent or even better. What holds him back is some choppy phrasing and ineffectively expressive optimism. Turn to Robert Hill and listen to phrasing which makes his reading much more urgent than Moroney's and more uplifting as well.
Kenneth Gilbert provides an excellent reading with good pacing and phrasing, highly effective projection of optimism, and great detail of voices. My sole reservation is that I think his style of interpretation would have been more rewarding with a higher level of austerity. Phantasm is in top form with a swaying and smooth as silk flow that doesn't quit; their variety of expression is outstanding. the Keller Quartett is fairly similar to Phantasm but with stronger projection and more angularity. Nikolayeva's reading has legato playing as its foundation. I think it works wonderfully; her quick reading only lacks some strength toward the beginning of the movement.
I'm glad to report that there are four special performances. Urgency and yearning permeate Hill's interpretation. His voice detail is great and I've not heard a more uplifting version. In Hill's hands, I'm climbing a majestic peak, always aware than I can meet the challenge and doing just that.
Leonhardt gives a typically outstanding reading: slow, aristocratic, inexorable, and austere with an uplifting aura of subtle proportion. The man is always focused on reaching his destination; nothing gets in his way since he is indestructable.
Another Gould organ performance and it's a great one, quick and loaded with staccato. His rhythm is the best I'm aware of, the ceremony is pervasive, and I can't keep still when listening. For an organ performance, the detail of voices is amazing. It's all Gould.
Koroliov delivers more variety of expression that I would have thought possible from this fugue; it's a transcendent accomplishment. If anyone thinks that the movement contains a lack of breadth, Koroliov will cure that misconception in a hurry. He fills up every fiber of my being; this is all magic and the best performance of Contrapunctus VII. You have to hear this piece of heaven.
It's been great listening to these three stretto/counter fugues. Along with the first four fugues, I feel that I'm privy to the making of a majestic work of art. The music doesn't just keep going; it's on vertical lift. And the performances have enhanced the whole experience. It's more than the fact that artists such as Leonhardt and Koroliov always are wonderful; every version has provided me with new insights.
Update on Organ Versions - It hasn't pleased me that none of the organ versions are near the top level, and I've been thinking about this. In my humble opinion, organ sound is not, other things equal, advantageous for a composition which has a strong need for detail and clarity. At the other end, the majesty of the organ can be transcendent, particularly in heroic music or music which the artist makes heroic such as Gould's Contrapunctus VII. I think it's a challenge for the performer. Gould is handling it very well, Alain and Fagius have had varying degrees of success, and Koito hasn't met the test except in Contrapunctus III and VI.
Part 3 will cover the four remaining traditional fugues. Just a reminder that Aldwell "bugs-out" after Contrapunctus XI and moves on to Bach's French Overture. He's been doing well, but he has his moments where he plays in styles which are not his "bread and butter" with Bach. When Aldwell totally eschews his strengths of poetry, dreams, and a flow of silk, he's in unchartered territories. It just could be that the Art of Fugue is not the best vehicle for Aldwell. At the same time, I could do a lot worse than listen to Aldwell's AOF; his Contrapunctus II, III, IV, and VI are highly memorable.
Continue on Part 3