> Bach - The Art of Fugue BWV 1080 [KM]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue BWV 1080
Gustav Leonhardt, harpsichord
Rec: May 1953, Vienna.
VANGUARD OVC 2011/12 [86.56]

Gustav Leonhardt has made several recordings of the Bach’s Art of Fugue, and took a revolutionary approach to the work, being the first to maintain (through a pamphlet published in the 1950s) that it was definitely written for the keyboard, and for just one keyboard at that. This recording, made in 1953, was his first, and marks a special point in the history of "authentic" performances of baroque music.

This recording is interesting, but, like Leonhardt’s first recording of the Goldberg Variations, also available from Vanguard, is marred by a harpsichord whose sound is so tinny, so lacking in depth and relief that it is difficult to listen to. In particular, the lower range of this harpsichord is terrible, and the fugues and canons using this part of the instrument sound hollow. Part of this is because of the recording techniques of the 1950s, but part is simple that the instrument was not that good. A great deal of progress has been made since, and one no longer hears this type of sound.

Nevertheless, Leonhardt shows here a deep understanding of this work, and succeeds far more than in his first Goldberg Variations. His tempi are a bit slow, as in the Goldbergs, but they sound much better with such a contrapuntal work as this. At times, as in the fourth part of the work (listed here as Simple Fugue - theme inverted), it sounds far too slow to work as music. It takes on the character of a purely didactic work, an idea that Leonhardt strove to counter in his work. The harpsichord sounds out of tune in the final, unfinished fugue, and this makes this masterwork very difficult to listen to.

Leonhardt here, at age 25, showed his courage and audacity, yet his performance was not up to his ideas. He recognized this by re-recording the work, and his later Teldec set is far better. While this recording has historical value, the casual listener, looking for a harpsichord version of the Art of Fugue, would do better with Davitt Moroney’s recording on Harmonia Mundi or Robert Hill’s set on Brilliant Classics.

Kirk McElhearn


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