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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 [99:16]
Cédric Pescia (piano)
rec. 18-19 June 2013, Studio Teldex, Berlin
AEON AECD 1333 [40:05 + 59:09]

There are a few recordings of Bach’s Die Kunst der Fugue on piano around these days. I had the pleasure of reviewing Joanna MacGregor’s version some years ago, and bought Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Deutsche Grammophon version not long afterwards, enjoying it more than Mark Berry’s live experience, though I have to admit I haven’t played it much. Vladimir Feltsman also has a recording available via Nimbus (see review) reckoned to be more romantic in approach when compared to Aimard. Grigory Sokolov’s playing can be heard on Opus 111 (see review). Cédric Pescia has already made a respected recording of the Goldberg Variations on the Claves label, and this release arrives as we await Angela Hewitt’s Hyperion BWV 1080 with everything bated.

I enjoyed Cédric Pescia’s refinement in John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (see review) while at the same time bemoaning a lack of drama which makes other versions ultimately preferable. Bach on the piano responds well to his kind of touch however, so I was more than prepared to give this L’Art de la fugue a chance. What you will hopefully notice from the start is that the venerable Steinway instrument Pescia plays has been tuned in unequal temperament. This lends a special colour to the sound and a ‘period’ dimension which is unexpectedly effective. The result is by no means an ‘out of tune’ piano, but we gain a shift beyond a sometimes over-clinical even temperament which irons out some of the gorgeous dissonances you can find yourself re-discovering here. Have a listen to the closely-knit chromatic interactions of Contrapunctus III or the intensity of the progressions in Contrapunctus VIII, a 3 and enter a world in which ancient and modern meet on equal terms. Some may feel this is a clash; I find myself but revelling in the experience.

Pescia begins slowly in the opening Contrapunctus I, initially putting me on ‘reverence alert’, but the simple grace of the playing won me over very quickly. Playing Bach on the piano means treading that fine line between expressiveness and the risk of over-romanticising, and with his good sense of colour and voicing I found myself entirely involved in the musical narrative without feeling disturbed by over-interpretation. The Art of Fugue is full of superb music, but can become dry and academic if performed without imagination. While avoiding going overboard with special effects, Pescia can be playful or poetic, keeping things simple but allowing Bach’s notes to spread their life-enhancing effect. There is joy here, but the minor-key feel of the music and the unequal tuning combine to emphasise late-flowering poignancy in this journey through pastures of the richest counterpoint. Pescia is not one to avoid a certain amount of judicious pedalling, though thankfully not at the cost of clarity. Notes swim in deeper waters in a piece such as Contrapunctus V, but with a certain magic to the effect this works more as another means of keeping up variety rather than a blemish to consistency. Unequal tuning is not really designed for a great deal of sustaining of notes over more than a few beats, but Pescia’s ear for leading notes and lines keep things from becoming at all hairy.

Pescia’s playing remains rock-steady, but the increasing complexity of Bach’s counterpoint pushes the limits as we progress through CD 2. Have a listen to Contrapunctis XI, a 4 and you will hear it as you’ll never have heard it before on a piano. Pescia returns us gently to ‘ground zero’ at each the end and beginning of each cycle of counterpoint, but these journeys take on a quality of abstract fantasy and tonal remoteness which is nothing if not entirely modern. This is partly Pescia’s feel for the architecture of the music, but that special tuning takes on greater significance the denser the pieces become. Contrast is maintained to the end, including some sprightly Contrapunctus inversus movements, but the grand finale of the Fuga a 3 Soggetti is inevitably a point of focus. Pescia builds this superbly, raising a grand edifice but creating an upper level of heavenly light as well as creating granite foundations. His solution for the enigmatic ending to this incomplete work is intriguing. He doesn’t cap the work off with that extra chorale: Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich, BWV 668, or mix up the order so as to finish with something which is complete, one of my few complaints about Joanna MacGregor’s recording. Pescia slows down the final section as a kind of adieux, the very last notes dissipating into the mists of eternity.

This is an excellent recording and one of the most interesting versions of The Art of Fugue I have heard for quite some time. The 1901 Steinway chosen for the recording has a slightly antique sound but is by no means clunky, its mildly wiry sonorities well suited to the unequal tuning and general concept of the performance. With Æon’s usual high class presentation this is a release to be coveted.

Dominy Clements