Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080
Bachs Die Kunst der Fuge, Part 4
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Donald Satz wrote (February 13, 2001):
After the eleven traditional fugues, the presentations of the different recordings become much less uniform. There are two "mirror" fugues; a fugue is followed by its total inverse. In addition to Aldwell now gone, Phantasm does not provide either mirror fugue and Gould only has the rectus of one of the fugues. Most artists play the rectus before the inversus but Gilbert, as an example, reverses the order. It's hard to know your top from your bottom. Regardless, with cd programming technology, the point becomes moot as you can choose the order you prefer. That holds for all the versions except Savall's which does not provide separate tracking.
In Contrapunctus XII, the rectus is less severe than the inversus; personally, I prefer starting on the low note, so I listen to the rectus first. Within rather strict confines, there is a great deal of technical and expressive variety on display. I don't feel that the Keller Quartett gets close to the music's core, and they are very severe in the rectus. Alain is extremely slow and solemn, sounding church-like; variety seems to be the last thing on her mind. Switch to Koito's majesterial reading and discover a macabre aura and wealth of variety. Leonhardt is too severe in the rectus, and when it's time to provide some uplifting passages, he surprisingly only partially delivers. Robert Hill finds sunlight than Leonhardt can't realize.
Alessandrini's reading is excellent. He varies the instrumentation - rectus has violin, viola, cello, flute, and oboe da caccia; inversus replaces the flute and oboe with a bassoon. You can't ask for more variety of instrumentation, and the expressive variety is high as well. The performance, although fast, is very expansive and loaded with delightfully realized music. The ALSQ also gives a great interpretation of fine expressiveness, particularly of the rectus. Savall's consort-type reading is another winner, not as slow as I would have expected but just as expressive and haunting. Having more weight than Alessandrini or the ALSQ, I prefer Savall.
Moving on to the piano versions, Joanna MacGregor's rectus starts softly and continues building up to the end; it's very effective, and she provides great expressive variety. Her invertus is strong throughout. Koroliov, unlike MacGregor, begins the rectus in demonstrative fashion and the invertus with a pensive tone. His rectus has a heroic element which is compelling, his invertus is powerful. Nikolayeva is of slow tempo and strong disposition; she blends austerity and hope beautifully in a reading which is highly memorable. Some listeners might consider it too bleak and stark. Overall, although both MacGregor and Koroliov are excellent, I prefer Nikolayeva's "up against the wall" interpretation.
Both remaining organ versions, Fagius and Koito, are splendid. Fagius is very uplifiting and mesmerizing in the rectus, a little less effective in the invertus. Koito, unlike Fagius or Alain, provides a macabre atmosphere and some interesting registration.
Among the three remaining harpsichord versions, Moroney is quite slow. Although effective, he is a little on the hard side with more austerity than I feel the music can easily handle. Gilbert's version has invincibility all over it with wonderfully uplifting moments; it rivals Nikolayeva's reading. Hill is quicker with a lighter reading which is excellent and has strong forward momentum. In a field of high level performances, Gilbert and Nikolayeva are my preferred offerings for Contrapunctus XII.
Contrapunctus XIII is a three voice mirror fugue based on the same compositional foundation as XII. The music is lighter than in XII but has a wealth of substance. Among the three piano versions, Koroliov is fast, powerful, and clearly having fun; I don't like it at all. Nikolayeva is slower, very quiet, and uses much staccato. MacGregor's reading primarily uses legato and is also on the soft side with minimal incisiveness. None of the three is particularly memorable. Gould only provides the rectus, but he's like a breath of fresh air compared to the other three piano versions. Gould uses an attractive mix of staccato and legato; more important, there's a highly musical sense of urgency in his performance.
Of the three organ versions, Alain is very slow, Koito and Fagius of average tempo. Alain drags a little and sounds like the stereotypical organ grinder. I much prefer Koito and Fagius who possess better forward momentum; Koito has some interesting registrations.
Among the four harpsichord versions, Leonhardt is quite lyrical and retains his usually superb momentum. Gilbert's clarity is excellent and allows the listener to really hear all the counterpoint; he's also highly invigorating. Moroney isn't as clear as Gilbert, but he delivers a fine account with excellent rhythm and lyricism. Hill's is the quick harpsichord version, and it sounds like he's playing with a child-like smirk on his face; the bounce to the music sounds infantile to me. It's somewhat similar to Koroliov.
Enter the Multiples. As in Contrapunctus XII, Alessandrini inserts some fine variety of instrumentation. In the rectus, he gives us the violin and harpsichord. The inversus replaces the violin with a flute. His reading is quick, urgent, and mysterious; it must be captivating. The Keller Quartett is even faster than Alessandrini, and the performance is very special. Savall uses an average tempo; strings only in the inversus, just brass and winds in the rectus. It's a wonderfully uplifting interpretation. The ALSQ's quick performance is sprightly and well projected.
Of the better versions, the special ones are from the Keller Quartett, Gilbert, Alessandrini, and Savall. The Keller Quartet gives the fastest performance. While it flows like silk, the reading gives me the imagery of an Earth off-course and streaking to obliteration. Best of all are Savall and Hesperion XX with a tremendously uplifting performance having outstanding contrast and instrumental variety.
Next I'll cover the four Canons of the Art of Fugue. Each canon is in two parts, and if played in a specific sequence, each canon is more complicated than the previous one. That's the way I am listening to them and will review them. The order is: Canon alla Ottava, Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza, Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapunto alla Quinta, and Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu. Some versions use this order; others don't. In some versions, one or more canons are interspersed among the eleven traditional fugues. The reason for all this variation is large differences among various manuscripts and printed scores and artist preference. These are among the "grey" areas of life. Also, not every one of the versions I am reviewing has all four canons or even one of them. Aldwell is done, Phantasm and Gould have no canons, and Gilbert and the ALSQ provide only two of the canons. Concerning the ALSQ mind-set, the liner notes indicate that two of the canons "are not realistically performable on our instruments".
The Canon alla Ottava is an invigorating fugue; the left hand mimics the right hand after four bars, one octave apart. That's why they call it "imitation at the octave". Among the harpsichord versions, Hill does not make the first cut. The first reason is that he comparatively displays little sharpness and sounds rather ordinary. The second is he spends over five minutes muddling through the piece. On piano, Koroliov flies through in less than two minutes; it's technically impressive but I feel nothing from it. The same applies to the Keller Quartett. On organ, Fagius uses a higher register and gives the music a light aura which I find far from invigorating; others might well like his choice.
Outstanding music-making comes from Gilbert. His reading is so clear and crisp to the point where every thread of counterpoint is available to the listener. Also, Gilbert has great momentum wita perky rhythm. Alessandrini, alone on harpsichord, is very good with a spunky reading loaded with hesitations which are quite effective. Also in this category is MacGregor with a nicely propulsive and lyrical performance. Savall's 'strings only' version is luxurious and haunting. The remaining versions each provide some rewards.
Prior to starting my review, I held a very high opinion of the MacGregor set, although I can now see that was because I was very impressed with her Contrapunctus III which is my favorite fugue of the work. Overall, she is very soft-spoken with high priority on lyricism. But is it Bach? I can't deny that she sounds a little similar to my perception of new-age music, sort of a "Bach meets George Winston" sound world. One thing I am sure of concerning MacGregor's set is that it needs to be listened to on powerful equipment in order to get some strength of projection out of it. Judging from past comments I have made of this nature, she will probably do great in the other canons. It happens more often than not.
The next Canon, alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Terza, has syncopated inversion as its technical foundation. This fugue begins with the left hand in a somber and slow frame of mind; the right hand then enters a tenth above while the left hand simultaneously enters the world of diminution. There is something about this transition and its aftermath which I find completely comforting; my generous supply of endorphins multiplies exponentially. It's as if Mother Nature has enveloped all her children under her arms. Maybe I'm just feeling needy at the moment.
Nikolayeva doesn't quite hit the mark this time; actually, she didn't hit the mark in the previous canon either. This is all very strange. She is on the quick side, not as lyrical as usual, and largely devoid of that great accenting and variety she applies to most of the fugues. Still, I enjoy her performance. The music is wonderful, and I'm going to spend at least two days listening to it. As I write, Moroney is sounding like Bach reborn, and I haven't even reached out yet for Leonhardt, Alessandrini, or Savall. Other versions at Niklolayeva's level include Koito, Faguis, and Alain. Neither Gilbert nor the ALSQ provides this canon.
Excellent performances are given by Hill, the Keller Quartett, and Savall. 'Outstanding' well describes the readings from Koroliov, Leonhardt, Alessandrini, MacGregor, and Moroney. Koroliov is the best I've heard at giving me the Mother Nature image; there's a complete supply of assurance. Leonhardt's is by far the slowest version; his prolonged left hand beginning is so incisive. Alessandrini is recorded at a low level, but his poetry and superb proportion shine through. Moroney blends austerity and hope in a captivating manner. MacGregor is at her dream-like best with sufficient edge to avoid the New Age syndrome.
The next Canon, alla Duodecima, is a majestic fugue of great urgency. Although I had a degree of expectation that the organ versions would tend to excel, the results indicate otherwise. Fagius reveals only a moderate amount of majesty and even less urgency. Alain is better but doesn't approach the best versions. Koito is very slow at almost five minutes, but she has interesting registrations which give the music a macabre atmosphere which is quite attractive.
It would be difficult for the piano to display all the majesty of the Canon alla Duodecima, and Nikolayeva can neither do it nor replace it with any other admirable feature. MacGregor is quicker and it pays off in greater urgency than the Nikolayeva performance. Koroliov is very fast and more demonstrative than either MacGregor or Nikolayeva; I prefer MacGregor, as Koroliov is more aggressive than majestic.
The Keller Quartet does very well with much urgency in a fast performance. Savall is significantly slower with a haunting 'strings' rendition; both performances are at Koito's level. The ALSQ is back for this fugue, and the group easily surpasses Savall in terms of providing a haunting quality; they also possess a majesty outstanding for a group of recorders. I like their reading very much.
Among the harpsichord versions, Leonhardt establishes right from the start a high degree of urgency and forward momentum. He is surprisingly fast, and I feel that a slower tempo without any sense of being rushed would have been beneficial. The slower Alessandrini is incisive and quite effective. Hill begins boldly and maintains a sharp focus; he is also highly lyrical with the most attractive pacing. Moroney's reading is similar to Hill's but less stunning and lyrical. Although I don't find any of the versions outstanding, my preference is for Robert Hill and the ALSQ.
The Canon per Augmentationem in contrario motu involves a perpetual canon in double counterpoint where the upper voice is followed by its inversion in augmented note values. The right hand starts its line, and the left hand enters playing backwards; later, the voices swap roles. It's all very interesting to listen to; Moroney sweeps the board with a relatively slow tempo, crystal clarity, and the most enticing lyricism of any of the reviewed versions. Koito, MacGregor, Savall, Alessandrini on harpsichord, Nikolayeva, and Gilbert give excellent performances of clarity, poetry, and weight. The remaining issues lack the clarity and impact I desire.
Update: Among the best versions at the conclusion of the eleven tradtional fugues, only Gilbert continued to maintain excellence in the mirror fugues and the two Canons he performs. That leaves him at the top level, and he does not provide the Great Unfinished Fugue or any 'odds & ends'.
In the last part of my review, I'll review the Great Unfinished Fugue and the odds & ends which mostly consist of alternative versions of fugues already covered.
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