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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of the Fugue

Contrapunctus 1
Contrapunctus 2
Contrapunctus 3
Contrapunctus 4
Contrapunctus 5
Contrapunctus 6
Contrapunctus 7
Contrapunctus 8
Contrapunctus 9
Contrapunctus 1
Contrapunctus 10
Contrapunctus 11
Contrapunctus 12
Contrapunctus 13
Contrapunctus 14
Contrapunctus 15
Contrapunctus 16
Contrapunctus 17 (for two pianos)
Contrapunctus 18 (for two pianos)
Contrapunctus 19 (for two pianos)

Peter Elyakim Taussig, piano
Rec: April 2001, Master Sound Astoria Studios, New York.

Peter Elyakim Taussig is a Canadian recording artist who lost the ability to play with his right hand due to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and arthritis. He invented 'Musical Sculpting' initially to overcome his disability, this allows him to record any repertoire just with his left hand and a computer mouse.

Allow me to quote extensively from Peter Taussig's web page:

"Musical Sculpting is a technique for shaping musical phrases using an acoustic concert grand piano connected to a computer. The recordings are created on the Yamaha Disklavier PRO, a reproducing piano that is capable of sending information into a computer and in turn can be triggered or "played" by the computer.

"Musical Sculpting separates the process of playing the notes from the process of shaping the music. Refining a musical performance is no longer achieved through repetitive physical playing but by manipulating the phrases in a graphic environment with a computer mouse."

At first, one would think this leads to a purely metronomic performance, one as rigid as a Swiss watch. This is not the case - and is obvious from the very first fugue, which Taussig plays very slowly, and with a flexible rhythm. Yet, as a stylistic choice, this fugue does not work as well as it might - not that the tempo is wrong, or problematic, but there is too much of a contrast between the first fugue and the following fugue, which takes off at a very fast tempo, with almost syncopated rhythm. Aside from the first fugue, the tempi are relatively rapid, in fact, many of the fugues are faster than most other performances. (The final fugue is, for my taste, too fast. The subtle interplay of the many voices is lost in the rush.)

Taussig allows himself to alter the text slightly - his ornaments, even runs, at times, can be a bit shocking, yet they do fit in with the overall vision that slowly becomes apparent as one listens to the entire work. Such ornamentation becomes apparent in the second fugue, and in the very first notes of the fourth fugue.

If I didn't know how this disc was recorded, there would certainly be nothing to suggest that the piano was not "played". It lacks the mechanical, wooden rhythms that come through standard midi performances, and the sound is truly that of a "real" piano. Taussig claims that he could "modify and control the rubato, articulation and dynamic shading of [his] recording" so "each voice assumed a constant identity that could be maintained throughout the piece, something nearly impossible to achieve in a real-time recording." It is hard to say whether this works or not - at times, the left-hand part comes through a bit louder than one usually hears it played; sometimes this works, sometimes it submerges the treble part a bit. But, at other times, there is a unique sense of texture. The three final fugues for two pianos work surprisingly well, with a good level of definition among the different voices (except for the tempo problem, which I mentioned above).

It should be noted that Taussig only plays the fugues - the contrapunti -, which allows him to put this recording on just one disc. The canons, which are left out, are an integral part of the Art of Fugue, and it is a shame to have ignored most of them although the canons are included as Contrapuncti 12-15 (their designation in the manuscript).

In the end, how should this recording be judged? Taussig is following in the footsteps of Glenn Gould, who posited the idea of recordings as a new musical art form. Other recordings are made in bits and pieces, with edits and splices galore - so should one condemn this recording for its technique? I do not think so. Peter Taussig has recorded a unique, personal interpretation of the Art of Fugue, and, no matter how the recording was made, it stands on its own as a fine work. I would perhaps have liked to hear a recording that is a bit closer to the text, without Taussig's embellishments, but that, too, is part of his vision. Compared to the many vapid recordings released by well-intentioned performers, this at least has the merit of declaring a vision and following through on it. For that reason alone, this disc is worth exploring. Few musicians today dare realize originality. Kudos to Peter Taussig for having the courage to do so

Kirk McElhearn



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