Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue BWV 1080 (ca.1745-50) [82:19]
French Suites (1722-25)
French Suite No.1 in D minor BWV 812 [12:20]
French Suite No.2 in C minor BWV 813 [13:40]
French Suite No.3 in B minor BWV 814 [12:56]
French Suite No.4 in E flat major BWV 815 [11:04]
French Suite No.5 in G major BWV 816 [14:40]
French Suite No.6 in E major BWV 817 [14:01]
Joanna MacGregor (piano)
rec. 12-15 November, 11 and 13 December 1995; St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol (Art of Fugue), and May 1993, Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh (Suites).
WARNERCLASSICS/SOUNDCIRCUS 2564 67235-2 [3 CDs: 44:40 + 37:39 + 78:44]

Having tried and only partially succeeded in loving Vladimir Feltsman’s Nimbus recording of The Art of Fugue (see review), I’ve been living with Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Deutsche Grammophon as a piano version since. As I said in the review however, “even he doesn’t have all the answers”, and there is a masculine stridency in some of his playing which again makes me admire this recording rather than love it.

Now Warner/SoundCircus have brought out Joanna MacGregor’s 1995 recording of BWV 1080 in an attractive 3 CD box which also gives us all six French Suites on a single disc. MacGregor’s Art of Fugue is warm and welcoming from the outset, her gentler touch in the opening Contrapunctus 1 promising a more involving ride from the outset. This is carried through in the playing further on, with Contrapunctus 3 as an example, presenting the lines of counterpoint with well defined character and lyricism at the same time. Her stability of tempo is also an advantage, with Aimard’s approach at times seeking to phrase in vertical terms and serving up minor micro-shifts in speed as a result. MacGregor can be more playful as well; her swifter Contrapunctus 4 is full of uplifting little touches of articulation – a delightful cascade of notes rather than an avalanche. Her sense of shape in each piece is very nicely done, and taken with an uncomplicated logic which guides the listener through Bach’s most mind-mangling of technical labyrinths. The contrasts between each piece also keep the ear alert, and help prevent intellectual overload. Take the gently bubbling brook of Contrapunctus 7 against the sometimes fearsome drama of Contrapunctus 8 and you’ll hear what I mean.

Having The Art of Fugue on two discs rather than one is a minor disadvantage, but MacGregor allows her expression to enter the realms of tempo at times, and at 10:43 against Aimard’s 7:04 her Contrapunctus 11 helps tip this set far enough over the 80 minute mark to make two CDs a necessity. I wouldn’t want to be without this though, as the piece is turned into something timeless and monumental, as Sviatoslav Richter did with some of his Bach Preludes and Fugues. This release has no actual notes, though track-listings are complete. There is therefore no news about Joanna MacGregor’s thoughts about the music in these recordings. She has recorded all 14 fugues and four canons, only presenting the final unfinished Contrapunctus 14 in front of the two alla modo rectus/inversus versions of Contrapunctus 13. I’m all for as complete a collection as possible, but other than providing the arguably sentimental inclusion of one or other chorale at the end of the cycle the finishing of this work with anything other than Contrapunctus 14 is beyond my comprehension. Still, I am delighted to have discovered this piano recording of The Art of Fugue, and it has renewed my enthusiasm about its possibilities for the instrument.

For a comparison of the French Suites it wasn’t hard for me to find my big juicy box set of Angela Hewitt’s recordings of Bach. I find Hewitt’s touch in these and Bach’s other keyboard works hard to fault, and will be first in the queue if and when she records The Art of Fugue. Joanna MacGregor is again warmer than her competitor, and is placed here in a more resonant acoustic, which heightens the fluidity of her playing. She is generally swifter than Hewitt in terms of tempi, and her use of the sustaining pedal creates a quite different effect in many pieces. That gorgeous Sarabande in the French Suite No.1 for instance, which becomes something more vocal in its expression, where Hewitt’s drier accompaniment gives the melodic line a different, more instrumental but no less expressive a significance. Hewitt’s more austere aural picture makes for a more intense listening experience, but with MacGregor’s sound the equivalent of relaxing in a warm bath of Bach I find it hard to claim a preference of one over the other – which one I might chose at any given moment would depend on my mood or the occasion.

As far as recording quality goes I have few complaints about the French Suites, though there is a funny metallic effect on the note E flat – top of the treble stave, which you can hear in No.2 in C minor. The more lively Courante, Air and Gigue movements suffer from this, which sounds as if someone has left a sympathetically resonating tambourine lying around somewhere in the recording space. I hardly need say you’ll hear the effect come back in the Suite No. 4 in E flat major. I’ve listened through different systems and heard the same thing each time, so it’s definitely on the disc itself, though it is a minor blemish and probably won’t trouble most people.

Troubled by the imperfections in Joanna MacGregor’s more recent recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (see review), I find my faith more than restored by this remarkably fine set. This recording of The Art of Fugue is certainly my current first choice on piano; and with a beautifully pellucid set of French Suites to go with it I commend this release very highly indeed.

Dominy Clements

Highly recommended.