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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [85:31]
Schaghajegh Nosrati (piano)
rec. 2015, Mendelssohnsaal, Gewandhaus Leipzig, Germany

It would be pushing it to state that the floodgates are opening when it comes to recordings of Bach’s The Art of Fugue on piano, but interest has certainly grown in recent years, and with Angela Hewitt’s recent recording on Hyperion (review) it seemed that this work had finally come ‘of age’ through this medium. Hewitt manages to take this vast and enigmatic work further beyond its dusty academic reputation than any other recording I’ve encountered, reaching the turning point at which its truly poetic qualities shine at least as bright or even brighter than its sheer technical brilliance. Evolution never stands still however, and I’ll be intrigued to see in which directions BWV 1080 will be taken in the years to come.

I would hesitate to say that Schaghajegh Nosrati is in any way the inheritor of Angela Hewitt’s breakthrough recording, though she does mention Hewitt as one of her inspirational figures in the booklet. Nosrati has lived and breathed this music since she was a teenager, and while this has to be considered a brave choice for a debut CD it is also a logical one, considering “it was as if it were the key to [Bach] and it so fundamentally influenced my understanding of music as has no other work before or since.” In her booklet notes, Nosrati debates whether The Art of Fugue can be regarded as a cycle or “rather as a loose collection of contrapuntal pieces.” There is a discussion about the order in which the pieces are to be played, and while this differs from other versions the effect on the whole is not very significant. You wouldn’t mess around with the Goldberg Variations in this way as its structural narrative is so clear, but with BWV 1080 there is room for a certain amount of personal re-shuffling. Nosrati has the first 11 contrapuncti as originally published, then the Canons as a set of four, the Mirror Fugues also together, topped off with the final unfinished Quadruple Fugue played without any kind of completion, and also rejecting the idea of including a chorale “as compensation for the unfinished end of the last counterpoint” or as a pious reminder of Bach’s mortality. The benefit of this, added to Nosrati’s respectful but often swifter traversal of the work means it can fit on a single CD, though probably one that will take pride of place as the longest in your collection.

Beautifully recorded in a fine but non-churchy acoustic, this is an impressive and musically satisfying BWV 1080 in every way. Inevitable comparison with Angela Hewitt throws up arguments and contrasts, but any choice between the two is by no means as clear-cut as you might imagine, and for this I am grateful – that I can equally enjoy both is a joy in itself. Hewitt doesn’t talk about The Art of Fugue in terms of it being a cycle, and indeed her writing on each fugue, the spaces left between each on the recording and the contrasts between them and their often dramatic shaping leave us with each as a creation in its own right, monumental or otherwise. Nosrati’s idea of the work as a more interconnected whole takes us on a longer arc. I indicated that Nosrati’s playing was often swifter than Hewitt’s, though the first two contrapuncti are actually taken more spaciously. More significant differences in pace and timing occur further along, but in a Contrapunctus I that has an atmosphere and function similar to the opening Aria of the Goldberg Variations, we are left in little doubt as to the intentions of the performer. The music isn’t played without drama, but the dynamic rise is held more towards the end, with a broadening of tempo that indicates an introduction rather than a stand-alone work. Nosrati sees Contrapunctus 2 as more stately than Hewitt, who hears it as more dance-like. Hewitt gives the theme more character from the outset, with staccato accents on the two quarter-notes at the end of the third bar. This and her swifter tempo takes away some of the emphasis on those ‘awkward’ tied notes across the bar, but more importantly there is that vocal quality that makes her performance so special. In this instance Nosrati, while still very fine, is more organ-like in her touch, making the piece heavier by comparison, and perhaps not as one would like to hear it sung. The more horizontal lines she gives to Contrapunctus 3 create a sublime and refined contrast, and while you may or may not prefer Hewitt’s rise and fall and her articulation – one that almost implies an absent text – there is much less to choose between these two in absolute terms.

I don’t think it’s interesting to give a blow by blow account of the differences between these two special recordings in every track. Big differences in timing do invite attention however, and there is exactly two minutes between Nosrati at 5:03 and Hewitt at 7:03 in Contrapunctus 11. Hewitt sounds by no means slow, but Nosrati gives this piece a dramatic urgency that is quite compelling, creating a magnificent virtuoso centrepiece without turning it into a hectic circus ride. There is also a difference in the opposite direction when it comes to the final incomplete Contrapunctus 14, which Nosrati takes in a suspenseful and atmospheric 11:29 to Hewitt’s poignant but more architecturally chiselled 9:54. The beautiful shape Hewitt gives to those final bars always brings a tear to my eye, but this is only one interpretation. Nosrati hears it as a continuum which extends beyond those final notes, and by imposing no extra significance on them she shapes that silence beyond, leaving us with music that would have been but never was – the ‘Angel’s share’ of BWV 1080.

Having had that watershed experience with Angela Hewitt’s recording of The Art of Fugue I hadn’t expected to come across such a good one so soon afterwards. Had there been no Hewitt then Schaghajegh Nosrati would easily be my first choice in a piano recording of this work. As it is, this is still a recording that I shall genuinely cherish. Nosrati has the clarity and winning depth and playfulness to make listening to Bach’s BWV 1080 a sheer joy. This is a personal thing, but for me Hewitt keeps the edge through the poetry I hear in her playing, and that ‘vocal’ character in her lines that has proved such a revelation. If you want to hear what I mean, compare the contrasts in timbre and colour in Hewitt’s Canon alla Decima in Contrapunto alla Quinta. This is a two-part miniature marvel and Nosrati plays it with consumate skill. Her phrasing is impeccable, but the piano sound never drops below third gear and so can sound less relenting and, to my ears, less poetic as a result. This is of course just a snapshot, and Nosrati’s touch is full of contrast over the duration of the entire opus – just listen to the quiet eloquence of her Contrapunctus inversus 12 a 4, Forma inversa on track 17 and I defy you to tell me you’d want it ‘better’. You takes your choice and I love both – this is after all J.S. Bach played with a passion for life and art that in many ways is beyond criticism.

Dominy Clements



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