Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [95:10]
Vladimir Feltsman (piano)
rec. 12-14 March 1996, American Academy of Arts and Letters
NIMBUS NI 2549/50 [50:47 + 44:23]
How on earth do you decide on a design for a series of CDs of Bach played on the piano? Nimbus have gone for the bolts, cogs and gears look, which might lead detractors to remark on this as a reinforcement of the old-fashioned view of Bach as rather remote and mathematical. Thinking up alternatives is more difficult than you might think however: the antique look would seem a bit of a fraud, and any alternative to a portrait of the pianist of one kind or another has been ‘done’ so often it seems unlikely to generate much interest. The image for this recording in its former incarnation seems to have been a close-up of a fossil: ’nuff said.
Enough meandering about the look of Vladimir Feltsman’s re-release series from the MusicMasters catalogue, the Goldberg Variations of which having already been favourably reviewed on these pages. The Art of Fugue is probably a less common prospect on the piano, though Glenn Gould’s partial recording makes for fascinating listening, Grigory Sokolov’s box set is very much worth having, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard has made a very good case for it on Deutsche Grammophon. Chamber music versions are more likely finds these days, with numerous quartets of a variety of instruments trying their hand. I was recently fortunate to hear the Combattimento Consort Amsterdam in their leader Jan Willen de Vriend’s arrangement, which adds a quartet of reeds, oboe and cor anglais and two bassoons to the more typical string quartet, with the reserve forces of a harpsichord for added texture and variety. Initially less impressed by this setting, I soon came to agree that ‘less is more’ in many cases with this music – the clarity of Bach’s counterpoint being a paramount consideration, and certainly more important than too much artificially imposed orchestration or interpretative licence. This is not to say that stuffy old recordings on stuffy old organs are necessarily the best solution. Numerous musicians such as harpsichordist Albert Jan Roelofs and organists Bengt Tribukait and Gerhard Weinberger have however all proved how this music can be brought to life from the keyboard.
All arguments about suitable vehicles for this remarkable monument to counterpoint aside, Vladimir Feltsman’s performance is generally very pleasing. His rhythmic sense in the faster Contrapuncti is infectiously crisp, and he keeps a healthy separation to the notes even where they run in swift passages of sixteenth notes such as the canonic Contrapunctus 12, where you get the feeling he would even separate the notes of the trills if this were possible. These movements keep everything moving along and feeling fresh, but Feltsman is also awake to the use of gentler sonorities in the piano for warm readings of pieces such as the Contrapunctus 5. This kind of softer texture leaves space for the leading voices to emerge without being forced, though I would sometimes find myself wishing that he would introduce a greater fluidity of line here and there. Even where the music invites more legato lines Feltsman sometimes comes close, but seems reluctant to emphasise this potential aspect. Contrapunctus 11 has something of this, and is in any case not needlessly spiky, but the glory of the horizontal connections in the lines does become more subservient to their vertical relationships as the piece progresses. There are a few occasions on which the motor-motion of the music becomes rather distorted, and it is in slower pieces such as the Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Moto where it becomes hard to follow Bach’s musical argument even in its thinner two-part texture. Feltsman doesn’t want to go backwards or forwards in this particular piece, and the result is a rather strange mix of difficult peaks and turgid troughs. The following Canon all Decima suffers less in this regard, the running figures preventing too much opportunity to stray from a unified tempo, though Feltsman’s playing is somewhat unyielding here.
There are beautiful moments to be found in this recording, and I listened with everything open to Feltsman’s Inversus. Alio modo Fuga a 2 Clav. This has a wonderful suspended quality, and the melodic lines are given a fine but understated expressive weight. The same goes for the 13 minutes of Fuga a tre soggetti, although there is often a reluctance about the forward momentum which I know will bother me more on return visits.
Feltsman’s ordering of the pieces in his Art of Fugue deviates from the standard published order, but in general doesn’t run against the grain of scholarly opinion in this regard - for 1996 at least. I didn’t have any problem with the order of pieces until the final sequence. The Fuga a tre soggetti is followed by an extended break of 54 seconds, and movements 13a Inversus and 13b Rectus are stuck on like a kind of encore. I miss the more commonly added valedictory chorale Vor Deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit, Bach’s final piece written in 1750 when he was already blind and confined to his bed. Leaving this out goes well enough with Feltsman’s rather unsentimental approach to the unfinished bars of the Fuga a tre soggetti, but leaves sentimental souls like myself cut adrift and lacking ‘closure’. The rather jolly pair 13 is more like being poked in the eye with a stick than a resolution of the Art of Fugue, and my instinct says some re–thinking of this idea might have helped with this recording.
Vladimir Feltsman’s recording of the Art of Fugue has many fine qualities, and I’ve enjoyed hearing this release. I am reluctant to be too critical, but have to conclude that this is a qualified success, likely to go well alongside the other volumes in his Nimbus set, but probably not a first choice as a solo piano version if sheer quality is your prime objective. For me, Pierre-Laurent Aimard receives the laurels in this regard. Even he doesn’t have all the answers, but he does manage to make the music not only noble and expressively potent but, with the aid of a pretty vast church acoustic, also exciting. That is a feature I do miss in Vladimir Feltsman’s recording, which by comparison doesn’t explore quite the same imaginative range which Aimard manages.
Dominy Clements
Good, but a qualified success. ... see Full Review