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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue BWV 1080a (1742-1748) [68:33]
Sébastien Guillot (harpsichord)
rec. Chapelle Notre-Dame de Bon Secours, Paris, 21-25 April 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557796 [68:33]


This is a new and worthy recording of Bach's late masterpiece, his unfinished riff on the very notion of counterpoint.
 
The Art of Fugue is, quite simply, an awesome display of fugal prowess. It is not just a collection of fugues. It is a boundary testing concoction of simple fugues, double fugues, triple fugues, stretto fugues, reflected fugues and, last of all, the great unfinished quadruple fugue.
 
In many ways, The Art of Fugue remains an enigma. What is the correct performing order for these pieces? Should the fugues be played in the order in which they appear in Bach's manuscript, or should the order in the original printed version prevail? Presumably the latter reflects Bach's own ordering of the pieces as he prepared them for publication. We cannot be sure. We do not even know what instrument Bach intended these pieces for. The organ? Bach was certainly a master of the king of instruments and these fugues sound great with big sonorities behind them. There have also been successful performances by orchestra, string quartet and even brass quintet. I made my first acquaintance with The Art of Fugue through the 1988 recording by Canadian Brass and to this day their rendition remains my favourite.
 
Most likely Bach had keyboard instruments in mind, and piano and harpsichord recordings certainly dominate the catalogue. There are precious few budget priced recordings, though.
 
This one proves a decent introduction, but not a first choice. Guillot's approach is respectful but unsmiling. This, combined with his firm touch and the bright but hard-edged tone of the replica harpsichord, can make his playing sound like a relentless rush of counterpoint at times. That said, he delineates voices clearly and gives each fugue a firm pulse. Guillot does allow himself a little freedom of tempo and a stately rall at the end of each fugue. This usually works quite well, but not always: the last note of fugue no. 6 (Contrapuncti 10 and 14), for example, is hit just after the previous chord has faded, making it sound like an afterthought rather than a resolution.
 
The liner notes, by Pierre Bachmann, are full of rhetorical questions and are not particularly helpful to beginner or collector. After a rush of questions that ask in metaphysical language the same questions I have posed above, Bachmann asks: “Why assign numbers to the soul's utterances? Why frame the unseen?”. Why, indeed? Perhaps it sounds more profound in the original French. No complaints about the engineering, though – the recorded sound here is vivid and full.
 
Overall, then, this is a decent, affordable and well-played introduction to The Art of Fugue. Those with other keyboard versions in their collection need hardly rush into the stores to buy this one, but it will suit anyone coming to this piece for the first time, or anyone wanting a harpsichord version to compare to their preferred arrangements of this mesmerising work.
 
Tim Perry
 

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