Bach, J.S.: Art of Fugue
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Pierre-Laurent Aimard's debut on DG is his first ever Bach recording as well as his first recording of Baroque repertoire
The first recording of the mystical The Art of Fugue by a world-renowned pianist since 1982
A pre-eminent performer of modern music, Aimard brings a unique and exciting approach to Bach
Aimard is a high-profile, important performer, especially given his links to many of the great contemporary composers; his first Bach recording is certain to generate much of interest in the music press
"Staggering technique, searching intellect and fantastical imagination" -- New York Times
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I find the present recording by Aimard most illuminating. His technical proficiency is awesome, as you would expect, and the contrapuntal aspect of the work is crystal clear.
One of my favourite recordings has been a piano version by Charles Rosen, a pianist, an academic and a polymath writer, all in one. (I recommend his "Piano Notes" to lovers of piano music.) But, having been recorded in 1967, it suffers slightly inferior recording quality by today's standard. The present recording by Aimard benefits from excellent sound quality produced by DG.
Of the five, I think Aimard and the Emerson win pretty easily.
There’s no doubt that the four string players bring out the individual voice lines far more effectively than could ever be possible on a keyboard, so, in music that is fundamentally and supremely contrapuntal, this really is the answer. The Emerson also do a lovely job of it, although I regret their acquiescing in a sentimental tradition of playing a completely irrelevant chorale at the end. They’re particularly good in the bigger fugues, and bring the unfinished one to its open end really effectively.
But I put Aimard up alongside them because he is so musical. He brings a delightful variety of touch and mood, winning me over especially to some of the canons which I had never taken too seriously – he makes the long slow one sound a counterpart to the transcendent 25th Goldberg variation, which pays a high compliment to the music. He also shapes the conclusions to the fugues handsomely, using precisely paced ritardandi to great effect when Bach himself sometimes falls a little short in preparing for the final bars.
I am unimpressed by Davitt Moroney’s harpsichord version. His instrument is supposed to be made to sound as an eighteenth century harpsichord would have done, but its sound is heavily “in your face” and the lack of variety in its qualities only make me regret once more the pain that the “authentic instruments at all costs” outlook causes. Of course Bach would have been much surprised to hear his music played on a modern grand piano, but for me the objective is to hear creative performance.
Lastly I think the chamber orchestral options are really a bit much. It’s interesting to hear this great series of compositions in so much instrumental colour, but in the end I think it makes for a distraction even allowing for the repetition inherent in the work’s themes. Go for Aimard or the Emerson.
If you are wanting a piano version of 'Art of Fugue' and, much as I love Sokolov's version (available, in any event, only in a multi-disc set), if you only want one version this is the one to have.