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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [97:17]
Filippo Gorini (piano)
rec. September 2020, Teldex Studio, Berlin ALPHA CLASSICS 755 [64:36 + 32:41]
Bach’s The Art of Fugue is perhaps not quite standard repertoire for pianists, but pioneering performers such as Tatyana Nikolayeva (review)
helped reveal the expressive potential of the work, and we can now refer to
impressive recordings such as those by Schaghajegh Nosrati (review), and Angela Hewitt’s milestone version on the Hyperion label (review). Hewitt’s recording, also spread over two discs, comes to just under 90 minutes. Filippo Gorini, even without that final chorale Wenn wie in höchsten Nöten sein comes in at just over 97, so you know you’re in for an expansive interpretation.
Filippo Gorini commenced his exploration of The Art of Fugue in 2013, but it was the silence of lockdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 that accelerated this process of study and has brought us this recording. The booklet contains a series of poetic ‘Preludes’ that connect to BWV 1080. His view on the music is not to view it as “a fixed monument of the past, but rather in vivid dialogue with contemporary culture.” I won’t comment on this or the poetry, but have been encouraged by Gorini’s view, comparable with Hewitt’s, that “singing lines are really at its heart”, and “the view that it should be seen solely as a theoretical marvel is misguided: as the counterpoint and and canons evolve in formal complexity, so does their emotional tension, until the heartbreaking intensity of the unfinished Fuga XIV.”
Gorini’s tempi are often broad, but they are by no means lugubriously slow. His lyrical approach is connected to a forward rhythmic momentum that, while by no means mechanical, admits to only the most refined and minimal touches of rubato. Expressive points are made through dynamic light and shade, and the ‘vocal’ lines are weighed superbly against their harmonic context. Contrapunctus V takes 4:23 here compared to Hewitt’s 3:16, but there is no sense of drag, just of immersive and deeply felt elegance. Not all of Gorini’s playing is slower however, and with contrasting animation he takes the following Contrapunctus VI a 4 in Stylo Francese at a tempo that shaves a minute and a half from that of Hewitt.
I found Gorini’s conception of BWV 1080 as a narrative whole entirely convincing and, while tempted to skip forward in typical impatient cynical reviewer fashion, found myself reluctant, indeed unable to break the flow of the performance. Each new piece conjures something new, making you want to hear how it will unfold. Gorini’s ordering of the movements works well in this context, breaking up the sequence of Contrapunctus I-XIII with the four Canons, and creating magical moments such as the entry of the softly delicate Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu after the Contrapunctus VII a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem, turning that exquisite piece into a kind of prelude for what follows.
Goroni doesn’t overburden or distort the music with too much ornamentation, and this enhances clarity in general. Contrapunctus IX a 4 alla Duodecima is joyously exuberant, and while there is an emphasis on soft profundity there is contrast enough, and this is not a recording that left me feeling down-beat in mood. That wonderful Contrapunctus inversus XII is done superbly in both its manifestations but in particular the Forma inversa with those mighty descending figures. The final Fuga a 3 soggetti is beautifully sustained. The timing is listed at 11:18 which is nearly a minute and a half longer than Hewitt but don’t be fooled, the music stops at 10:18, so we get a minute’s silence for gazing into infinity. Once again I don’t feel that the music drags, and while Gorini sails close he also somehow avoids that over-reverential atmosphere; a kind of preciousness that would have meant he had fallen into his own “monument of the past” trap. This is both contemplative and flowing, and indeed deeply involving, and the unfinished conclusion is a wrench, as it should be.
The piano sound is excellent here and in short, booklet aside, this is a valuable recording of The Art of Fugue. My admiration for Angela Hewitt’s version remains, but I prefer Filippo Gorini’s ordering of the pieces and have nothing but admiration for his performance in general. All in all I have to declare that this is one of if not the most expressive recording of this work available.