Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) The Art of the Fugue, BWV 1080
Martha Cook (harpsichord)
rec. October/November 2013, Prieuré Saint-Denis, Salle capitulaire, Nogent-le-Rotrou (Eure-et-Loir), France PASSACAILLE 1014 [38:31 + 44:55]
Back in the day, scholars and listeners weren’t even sure which instrument Bach wrote The Art of the Fugue for… or if he wrote if for any particular instrument at all. Nice romantic idea, that is… Bach writing for the platonic ideal of a musicke. Nonsense, say scholars like Gustav Leonhardt and Christoph Wolff quite convincingly. It’s written for the harpsichord. Blimey. And I have favorite versions for just about any version but the harpsichord. Oh, and no favorite version for the surprisingly popular saxophone quartet version, either. I would like to hear it on the accordion, though… but perhaps that’s just me. Without even trying for diversity, these are some of my favorites. For the piano (Sokolov/Naďve & Zhu Xiao-Mei, Accentus), for viol consort (Il Suonar Parlante, Winter & Winter and Fretwork, Harmonia Mundi), for small ensemble (Musica Antiqua Köln & Reinhard Goebel, Archiv and Hespčrion XX/Alia Vox), for the organ (André Isoir, La Dolce Volta/Calliope), and for string quartet (Emerson String Quartet/DG and Keller Quartet, ECM).
Thank heavens for the confusion while it lasted. Imagine that half of these interpretation might never have been undertaken, because there wouldn’t have been the interpretative wiggle-room, if we had always been adamant about “AoF” being for the harpsichord and nothing but the harpsichord (except a second harpsichord, where the score necessitates this). But I’m stalling. Somehow trying to come around to (or avoid doing so) the disc at hand – Martha Cook’s playing a 2005 Willem Kroesbergen copy of a Johannes Couchet, which I don’t particularly love while at the same time being unable to put said lack of love in appreciably and justifiably straightforward words.
Mme Cook, to pick up the thread of speculation being an essential part of TheArt of the Fugue, does her own speculating. I’m not in the position to deny or validate her claims – namely that Bach composed TheArt of the Fugue to fit a selection from the Gospel of St. Luke (14:27-35), but she cites circumstantial and numerological coincidences - not to use the word “evidence” - that make her theory sound at least plausible. There’s nothing kooky, batty, or extremely far-fetched (consider Harke de Roos’ intriguing but wild theories about, and recording of, Beethoven’s Second Symphony!) about her claim, as there so often and notably is.
As far as I’m concerned, whatever it takes for an artist to justify a recording or to be motivated to make it in the first place, I’m fine with that. Ultimately the test of any recipe is in the eating – and Martha Cooke’s recording certainly goes down the hatch easily but not memorably. How much of that is because of the order of the Fugues (I-III-Canon alla Decima-II-IV-Canon alla Ottava-V-IX-X--VI-VII-Canon alla Duodecima-VIII-XI-Canon per Augmentationem-XIV), or her choice which ones to include (not included are XII [Contrapunctus inversus a 4]-XIII [Contrapunctus inversus a 3]-XVIII [Alio modo Fuga a 2. Clav.], for the very simple reason that they can’t be played by one player alone), or her steady, solid playing, or the neat, straight laced instrument, is hard for me to tell. Certainly everything is in place and deliberate, with a nice resonant sound the quality of which I started especially appreciating after comparing it to Fabio Bonizzoni’s rather dry recording on Glossa. Incidentally, Bonizzoni takes 63 ˝ minutes for his selection of works [BWV 1080.1-12, 14-15, 18-19] to Marth Cook’s 83:26. Beyond that, there’s not much by way of stagger or bending the notes or ornamentation. It’s just a thoughtful and unhurried, beautiful performance from one fugue to the next. That je ne sais quoi that I’m trying to pin down as missing… it might be that from the performances I adore, I get a sense of greatness, of finality, of something bigger than myself (actually, almost any Bach performance does this, Martha Cook’s included)… well, that je ne sais quoi in any case, that makes Bach the greatest composer and many an atheist’s Ersatz-deity. And that I am missing here. One of the places I am getting it (certainly with more ornamentation going on, almost to a fault… but also with a wonderful flexibility and buoyant, forward-momentum-creating touch) is Ton Koopman’s recording (Challenge Classics). Martha Cook doesn’t propel me. She doesn’t give me a sense of that Bachian perpetuum mobile.
Born in the US, Martha Cook lives in France and has worked with the Who’s Who of the French early music scene. I hadn’t heard of her before, but among my Bach discs one turned up with her on it. She’s part of the small ensemble that performs the Musical Offering around Davitt Moroney (Harmonia Mundi). That does go back quite a while and speaks to her excellent Bach pedigree. That I couldn’t get more into her faultless reading of the Art of the Fugue is surely due to some deficiency of mine more so than any on part of the recording, but still: that’s how it crumbles, cookie-wise.