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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Tatyana Nikolayeva (piano)
rec. live, 26 April 1993, Sibelius Academy, Helsinki

Jonathan Summers in his booklet notes for this release describes Tatyana Nikolayeva as “the greatest Bach player of her generation”, and while there might be some room for argument about this she certainly earned plenty of recognition in this regard, winning the 1950 International Bach Competition in Leipzig, the result of which being that jury member Dmitri Shostakovich composed his 24 Prelude and Fugues Op. 87 especially for her.

Nikolayeva was most certainly a Titan of the keyboard, performing almost literally until the end of her life. She died a few days after a stroke that she suffered while performing the Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues in November 1993, continuing to play to the end of the first half of the programme but forced to cancel the rest of the performance. Recorded in April 1993, this concert performance of The Art of Fugue is therefore a document of one of her last concerts.

Given a clear and natural sounding recording and a respectfully quiet audience, this is as you might expect more a significant document of a great musician rather than a definitive library choice of Bach’s BWV 1080. There are some finger slips here and there, and some bad memory lapses in the Canon alla decima and Contrapunctus 12 (Inversus). Nikolayeva’s musical memory was prodigious and her skill as a Bach performer undeniable, but while the musicality shines through for much of the performance this is alas not Nikolayeva at her best.

Tatyana Nikolayeva made a very good recording of The Arte of Fugue in 1992 for the Hyperion label (CDA66631/2), and her ordering of the fugues and canons is the same as in this live recording. The Hyperion recording is a fascinating listen, and one of the better piano versions of BWV 1080 though to my mind now overtaken by players such as Angela Hewitt (review), also on Hyperion, and indeed Schaghajegh Nosrati (review) on the Genuin label. Nikolayeva certainly paved the way for such recordings, but for repeated listening and that jaw-dropping clarity and expressive rendition of Bach’s remarkable counterpoint she has been somewhat left behind.

This said, there is still value to be found in this live recording. The distinctive Russian sound is very much in evidence, and particularly poignant is the final Contrapunctus 14 which Nikolayeva takes at her characteristic measured pace and with some of those quirky ‘pizzicato’ contrasts of texture that give the feeling of an ‘orchestrated’ interpretation. The booklet notes remind us that she would sometimes close the piano lid after the moment that Bach ceased his work on this incomplete fugue, and there is no comforting chorale prelude Wenn wie in höchsten Nöten sein to take us away from the fragility of those final notes. A few seconds of applause has been left in at the end of the recording, which certainly gives maximum value if duration is one of your concerns. To sum up, this is something of a souvenir and a musical epitaph but, I think most would agree, not a main library choice – rather more one for the specialist collector or Nikolayeva fan.

Dominy Clements

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