Glancing at the liner notes for this CD, one may be surprised to see that this work is considered more a treatise on counterpoint than a musical work in its own right. Jeffrey Prater, who wrote the notes, discusses the rhetoric and counterpoint of the work, but avoids mentioning the intensely profound nature of this music. The fact that there are only two pages discussing the work and six on the organ and its registrations show that this recording is meant more for organists than music lovers.
Ziegler's playing shows an excellent clarity in the lines of the first few fugues. But, when the registrations get more imposing, that clarity is lost a bit in the mix. Her tempi are appropriate, and the registrations chosen are indeed interesting, as they increase in volume and force throughout the set. Yet, there is little emotion heard here. It sounds as though this performance is more a treatise on registration for organists than a piece of music for enjoyment. The playing is not metronomic, yet it seems a bit stiff, lacking in that subtle touch that can bring these fugues alive (as can be heard on André Isoir's recent recording on Calliope). The exposition of the subjects in the mirror fugues shows just how mechanical the interpretation can sound. There is something very cold, here, a lack of interest perhaps in the melody as such, as opposed to its counterpoint. At times, the pedal playing is slightly out of sync with the rest of the music; this can be heard in some sections of Contrapunctus VI.
Some of the denser fugues have very nice texture; the long Contrapunctus XI works very well, being relatively loud, yet not drowning the subtle lines of the fugue. The final fugue is also well-performed, using every resource available to the organist to reach the climax of the work.
One minor detail irks me quite a bit. The following is found at the end of the liner notes: "Only the mirror fugues are not playable ... by a single performer. Ms. Ziegler's performance of these mirror fugues is assisted by organist Mei-Chu Yen." This person's name later appears in the acknowledgements, in small print. Yet, nowhere on the CD case is this "organist" mentioned. I find this regrettable. Other recordings of the Art of Fugue always mention the second harpsichordist, for example, when one is required. There is no mention as to the exact contribution of Mei-Chu Yen, but I, for one, would wish that her name appeared on the cover and track list.
This recording is more for organists that lovers of this profound
work, one of Bach's last, and one of his most complex. Lacking in emotion,
yet partly compensating for this in technical aspects, this is a good
recording featuring an attractive organ.