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Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080

Bach's Die Kunst Der Fuge, Part 3

Continue from Part 2

Donald Satz wrote (January 21, 2001):
This posting will cover the 'multiple theme' fugues known as Contrapunctus VIII thru XI. Up to this point, each fugue has had one subject alone. Many things have been done to this subject such as inversion, augmentation, and the passing of the one subject among the different voices. But there has only been one theme to work with. Bach now moves on to fugues where the original theme is joined with one or two additional contrasting themes which are applied by Bach to various permutations.

Contrapunctus VIII is a triple fugue; two new themes are added to the original theme; the three themes are eventually combined. As you might think, adding additional themes has quite an impact on the number of potential permutations, and it is fascinating to listen to what Bach does with these themes. Of course, that's all relatively academic. The controlling factor is still the artistry and heart within the music, and the performer's success in discovering that heart and conveying it to the listener effectively. On to the music.

I see Contrapunctus VIII as having a strong sense of the 'macabre', mystery, and contrasting passages of sunlight. In the right hands, this fugue also has quite an infectious rhythm. I should relate that there are two basic tempos to deal with; the fugue begins with the slower of the two, while the faster tempo enters with the second theme and prevails through most of the piece (assuming the performer does increase the speed).

The less rewarding versions come from Fagius, Moroney, the ALSQ, Phantasm, MacGregor, Alessandrini, and Gould. Fagius is fairly quick and suface-bound. Although the optimistic passages are well conveyed, there's only a slight degree of the macabre; also, his rhythm, devoid of any bounce, is not appealing. Aldwell's reading clearly shows that a performance low on the macabre can still have strong impact. Moroney is very slow; this works well initially but soon leads to loss of interest. There's no such problem for Savall's consort reading which is even slower. Moroney just does not display sufficient variety. The ALSQ starts off well, but the playing takes on a droning property largely due to lack of expressive variety. That's also the issue I have with Phantasm.

MacGregor, along with Gould on organ, gives the fastest performance of the versions reviewed. Her speed serves her well in the first theme; once the second theme enters, the reading becomes soft-toned. But there's worse to come; MacGregor displays some perverse and unmusical decision making which is hard for me to take seriously. With a fine and fast piano version like Koroliov's available, there's every reason to dispense with MacGregor's. Gould is simply not very musical once the second theme enters. Alessandrini has very different problems. His reading is just for harpsichord, viola, and bassoon. Aside from my not caring for the bassoon in this fugue, the harpsichord played by Alessandrini is too recessed. Initially, I thought it a nice touch, but the lack of projection eventually bothered me. This is a performance that I don't feel has much going for it.

Very good performances are given by Aldwell, the Keller Quartett, and Alain. Aldwell employs moderate tempos and a lovely and seamless legato. There's plenty of mystery and sunlight; macabre elements are low. My primary reservation is some note banging in the last half of the fugue. The Keller Quartet is very expressive, haunting, and joyous at the right moments; the group's misfortune is having Savall and Hesperion XX as competition. Alain's misfortune is competition from Koito, but I can't deny that Alain's majestic entrance at 4'25" into the piece is one impressive and magical moment.

Superb is the word for Nikolayeva, Savall, Gilbert, Hill, and Koroliov. As good as Aldwell's legato may be, Nikolayeva's is substantially better, and her balance of voices is outstanding. Savall's consort reading is the slowest of the 17 versions; that's no surprise, and neither is the wonderfully expressive performance provided; just double the good things I said about the Keller Quartett, and that's where Savall can be located. Remember the infectious rhythm/bounce I mentioned earlier concerning Contrapunctus VIII? Gilbert and Hill possess it, have the macabre element in good supply, and are thoroughly illuminating. Koroliov is fast and angry in the first theme, and he wants us all to know it; he spends the remainder of the fugue telling us his story. It is an outstanding interpretation.

Kei Koito must be better than superb. For this fugue, she completely eschews the overbearing, relentless, and unmusical style that has dominated her performances up to this point. Now her musicality is at a high level, joy profound, macabre sensations abound, the rhythm outstanding - it would be great if she keeps this up for the rest of the work. I have my doubts.

I don't know if there's anything better than 'superb', but I'm placing Leonhardt there anyways. I'd trade in the six wonderful performances I reviewed for one Leonhardt. 'Macabre' and 'rhythm' are the key ingredients for this reading. Leonhardt is like a bulldozer plowing his way toward the finish line. Also, one can really hear everything that's going on - each permutation is clearly displayed. That's saying something given a recorded sound which is hardly ideal. He provides a foundation to the music which the other performers don't come close to reaching (some don't even try). And the bounce he gives the music is easily the best I've encountered.

Contrapunctus IX is a double fugue of short duration (2 to 3 minute range) and quick tempo. Inversion at the twelfth interval and a strong dose of augmentation form the foundation for this fugue. Glenn Gould likes it so much that he performs both an organ and a piano version.

Among the organ versions, Alain and Fagius are appropriately mecurial and of average tempo. With Gould, new vistas open up. He is majestic, uses a delightful staccato, and employs a bounce and rhythm that's irresistable. This is Gould at his best. Koito has the distinction of expanding the music to almost four minutes, but her reading is less enjoyable than Alain or Fagius for other reasons: a big and unattractive sound coupled with some clumsy phrasing.

Koroliov gives one of the fastest and most mecurial readings without losing any musicality. MacGregor is just as quick, but her lack of complete technical command yields some awkwardness and stilted phrasing. Nikolayeva, of average tempo, is very emphatic and mesmerizing. Aldwell is also emphatic but with less variety of expression than Nikolayeva. Gould's staccato approach on piano works wonderfully, and his technical mastery is impressive; forward momentum is supreme.

Moving on to the harpsichord versions, Moroney and Hill have much to offer, but they sound a little leaden to me; Hill engages consistently in supplying hesitations which I find dampens my enjoyment. Leonhardt is faster and provides a momentum equal to Gould's piano version. Gilbert's harpsichord sounds so good, the crispness and clarity of Outstanding quality. His is easily the best version to examine the working of Bach's mind.

On multiple instruments, Savall's consort reading is haunting and incisive. Phantasm is very quick with a sharp sound; I find their performance more concerned with virtuosity than expression. The Keller Quartet is much smoother than Phantasm but too soft-toned for excellent expressiveness. The ALSQ's recorders pierce their way through the music; I lowered the volume but found the reading busy and pesty. Their speed is fast, and I feel that a slower tempo would have better served their performance. Alessandrini's reading is a fine one, but Savall is the pick of this grouping.

Summing up, Contrapunctus IX is given excellent performances from Savall, Leonhardt, Nikolyaeva, Koroliov, and Gould on piano. From the start, I could tell that Gould on organ and Gilbert would be special listening experiences. Gould takthe music into a different world of majesty, vitality, and love of life. Gilbert has much vitality, but it's his opening up of Bach's architecture which is so rewarding.

Contrapunctus X is another double fugue where the two themes combine at the tenth interval. This fugue takes us back to very serious music with occasional rays of supreme light. After listening to each version a few times, Hans Fagius does not make the first cut. He is loud and heavy with an unattractive rhythm; this fugue has sufficient weight on its own without piling it on from the performer, especially in an unattractive manner. Although better than Fagius, I didn't want to listen any further to the Keller Quartett or Phantasm. They are quick, a little over four minutes. With the greater speed comes less weight and interpretations which are not as incisive as many other versions. Alessandrini well shows that a fast tempo can possess great weight with his consort-type reading. Savall's consort performance is left behind for different reasons. His performance is slow with abundant weight; however, expressiveness is very narrow and interest can wane.

Moving up, The ALSQ provides a lovely performance with a fairly constant volume level that tends to reduce the music's potential expressiveness. Joanna MacGregor is also very lovely and dream-like but very soft in tone; variety is significantly sacrificed. Edward Aldwell's version is excellent. He varies volume and expressive content much better than MacGregor while maintaining the music's beauty. Koroliov's piano version isn't quite up to Aldwell's level; I feel Koroliov's hands get too heavy at times.

Robert Hill's performance is also excellent; however, listening to Kenneth Gilbert or Davitt Moroney reveals that Hill is a little deficient in projecting each voice crisply. Alain is very slow and majestic, a big improvement over Fagius. However, I would have preferred a greater level of forward momentum for such a slow tempo, the type of momentum that a Leonhardt often assumes. Speaking of Leonhardt, his performance doesn't quite have the usual momentum he projects. Kei Koito sounds great with excellent voice projection and a high level of expressiveness. Alessandrini and his Concerto Italiano, although quick, have an abundance of weight and variety of expressiveness; they are slightly light-hearted for my tastes.

Outstanding performances are provided by Gilbert, Moroney, and Nikolayeva. Mystery and variety are the key ingredients in Nikolayeva's reading; she also delivers the most complete level of joy possible. Gilbert is on the quick side with superb momentum; his delivery is sharp, precise, and thoroughly incisive. He is more austere than most other versions, but the light emerges in a subtle and satisfying fashion. Moroney isn't austere, he conveys an urgency which is always ready to take flight. There's even urgency in his most uplifting passages as well. I end up amazed at how completely Moroney has done this while maintaining decorum. In addition, the incipient joy of the music is superbly displayed. Technically, Gilbert is more enlightening, but Moroney has the expressive edge. Moroney also has my vote as best version. I almost forgot to mention that Gould's disc has no Contrapunctus X on piano or organ.

Update on Joanna MacGregor - I have been very disappointed in her performances, having had very favorable memories before starting this survey. As with so many recordings, her set sounds excellent on its own. However, immediate comparisons reveal a softness to her playing which, while attractive and often lovely, is rather one-dimensional and obviously disregards the more animated and stronger elements of the fugues. Given her style of playing and the sound acoustic, it isn't easy to follow all of Bach's counterpoint and permutations; it's probably impossible. nikolyaeva's readings clearly show that the piano, without engaging in any key-banging, can deliver incisive and highly interesting/varied performances. MacGregor's set reminds me a little of the best that you can get from a piano lounge environment or a New Age source. I don't say this with disrespect; there's much to be said for excellence from those sources. I just think that Bach's composition offers so much more than that, and MacGregor really doesn't give much of it.

Contrapunctus XI is a triple fugue and the last of the eleven traditional fugues. This fugue takes the three themes of Contrapunctus VIII and basically inverts them with the result being six themes. Many consider Contrapunctus XI the most complex of the traditional fugues, and it is certainly one of the longest and most demonstratively mysterious and eerie fugues in the set. The danger for performers to avoid is to not allow the music to take on excessive weight and a sense of total disorder which, in combination, might make the fugue an unpleasant listening experience.

Gould, on piano, provides a wonderful first theme, but it's downhill from there. When urgency and power are called, Gould is relentlessly loud and rather unmusical. The same applies to Kei Koito; majestic in the first theme, she is largely ear-splitting thereafter. Lowering the volume does provide some relief, but then the music loses its impact. Savall's string and brass reading is much better but lacks horizontal variety; interpretations of this type need a great deal of forward momentum, and Savall provides little of that. By contrast, Alessandrini's consort-type performance has that horizontal variety and fine forward momentum.

The ALSQ is much too light and whimsical; the haunting quality that's needed from their style is often lacking, and incisiveness is very low. I have mixed feelings about Koroliov's reading. It's very quick and sometimes enlightening, but often it is simply loud with note-banging tendencies and minimal lyricism. The Keller Quartett starts off beautifully but soon degenerates into one fast episode followed by an even faster one; toward the conclusion, exaggerated chords totally kill off the performance.

Leonhardt's performance is very good but less rewarding than his previous ten fugues. As usual, his momentum is strong, but it is not compelling. Also, lyricism is on the low end.

Excellent performances are given by Alain, Aldwell, Alessandrini, Moroney, and Hill. Alain's version is the next to slowest of the group, but her expressive variety keeps the music interesting. Unlike with Koito, Alain does not steer toward bombast. Aldwell is highly expressive with fine diversity; this is a reading which is superb until Aldwell engages in a penchant for note-banging. Alessandrini gives a highly diverse and enjoyable performance in consort mode, but it all sounds like a series of unrelated episodes; he also pales in comparison to Phantasm. Moroney would have been one of the best readings but he loses his way and gets stuck in a monotonous and somewhat strident groove in the second half. Hill is very rewarding, but I sense a less than thorough absorption in the music.

MacGregor's performance is the slowest at over ten minutes. There's no dragging at all as she displays excellent expressive variety. It's a lovely performance, but not sedate at all.

Just as Moroney's urgency in Contrapunctus X is irresistable, that's the situation with Gilbert in this triple fugue. The level of urgency and tension keeps building up, and Gilbert releases it so sparingly and at the right moments. Also, Gilbert allows the listener to examine every musical strand and development. His isn't a surround-sound recording, but he makes me feel that incisive swashes of sound are penetrating me from all directions. There's magic in this one.

Hans Fagius is also magical with a totally majestic reading conveying a macabre/gothic atmosphere that I love. This is the best music that Halloween could offer, and I'm a big fan of Halloween. Fagius takes me to the underside othe universe.

Nikolayeva delivers the version for 'all seasons'. It has everything in abundance that the other wonderful performances have, and she separates each element and spits them out at just the right times. I get the sensation that Nikolayeva is the ring master of this fugue. There's so much variety, and she brings it all out in a seamless manner.

Speaking of seamless performances, Phantasm's magical interpretation of great mystery thrives on seamless playing. Every episode is tied in to the ones before and after. Tempo increases sound natural and even inevitable. This is Phantasm at its best.

summary on Edward Aldwell - With Contrapunctus XI, Aldwell concludes his contributions to the Art of Fugue. I do not consider this one of his better Bach achievements. Aldwell has built up an avid following of admirers through a style of playing built on seamless and somewhat dream-like performances of depth and beauty. He does not consistently use this approach in his Art of Fugue, often becoming hard and even harsh. It's a good recording, but I can only give it a qualified recommendation. Concerning just piano versions, with Nikolayeva's and Koroliov's being available, the Aldwell disc becomes somewhat superfluous.


Continue on Part 4

Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080: Details
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Comparative Review:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
Reviews of Individual Recordings:
AOF - E. Aldwell | AOF - R. Alessandrini | AOF - M.v. Delft | AOF - J. MacGregor | AOF - Phantasm | AOF - H. Scherchen | AOF - P. Taussig
General Discussions:
Part 1 | MD: The Art of Fugue
Discussions of Individual Recordings:
AOF - T. Koopman
The Art of Fugue: Expanding the Limits! [E. Demeyere]

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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