This recording by Tatiana Nikolayeva dates from 1967, so it's NOT the better known version she recorded shortly before her death. I was lucky to find this reprint in a shop in Helsinki that specializes in Russian music and books.
Before this album I had the Emerson String Quartet version. It sounded somehow forced and constrained to my ears, except for the unfinished fugue, which they played quite beautifully. After sampling several recordings for different instruments I already thought that The Art of Fugue would be an overtly cerebral work, which wouldn't lend itself to an emotional interpretation like The Well-Tempered Clavier or the Cello Suites.
Well, Nikolayeva won me over. Her playing is warm and her touch is firm. While staying true to the polyphony she also lets some air blow through the strict layers of contrapunct. There are strong shifts in dynamics, as Nikolayeva's reading is equally muscular, intellectual and emotional. She doesn't aim for a neutral, "mathematical" interpretation, but regards Art of Fugue as music of expression, turmoil and emotion, not just harmony, devotion and intellect. As a result, she banishes the monotony I've heard in quite many recordings of The Art of Fugue. Several Contrapuncti, which earlier sounded to me as merely intellectual exercises, have now started to blossom in my mind. Still, this is some of the "weightiest" music ever to come from Bach's quill!
I haven't heard Nikolayeva's much-lauded later recording. Even though this one predates it by some 25 years, it's quite an experience to hear. The recording quality is amazingly good, too: there is no unnecessary reverb, not to mention humming or background noise (like the kind that bugs Richter's otherwise beautiful recording of WTC Book I). None of the nuances of Nikolayeva's playing are lost here.