June 15, 2006


Bach: The Art of Fugue.  Sébastien Guillot, harpsichord.  Naxos.  $8.99.

     There has never been anything else quite like Bach’s final work, The Art of Fugue, and almost every performance of it is revelatory.  Sébastien Guillot’s reveals the extremely close relationship among all the fugues except the final, uncompleted one, and also reveals the enormous variety of approaches that a harpsichordist can take to these works through sonic selections as well as tempo choice.  If there was ever an argument about whether this magnificent work should be played on the harpsichord or the piano, this performance should go a long way toward settling it in favor of the older instrument.  After all, what the harpsichord lacks in note-sustaining ability, it more than makes up for through purity of line and the ability to vary its tone enormously, much as an organ’s tone can be changed by selecting different pipes.  Guillot’s variegated approach to The Art of Fugue makes it easier and more enjoyable to listen to than many other, more academically inclined performances.

     At the same time, Guillot scrupulously follows Bach’s intentions, to the extent that they are known.  This recording is made from the autograph score, and as a result, the huge, final Fugue 19 – the only piece not based on the theme that forms the underpinning of all the others – simply ends abruptly as the music moves to the name of Bach (German notation for the notes B flat, A, C and B natural).  There is no slowing down, no hint of what is to come, and certainly no “appropriate” conclusion – Guillot just plays right off the page.  This is jarring to hear but highly effective in retrospect, since it literally brings The Art of Fugue to an end with Bach’s name, at the point where – according to Bach’s second son, Carl Philipp Emanuel – the composer died.

     Whether or not this is literally true, it makes for an unsettling but somehow right conclusion to a work that explores fugal technique from every possible angle.  Fugue 6 sounds especially effective here, and quite different in tone from the rest of the fugues.  Fugue 13, which appears in “Forma recta” and “Forma inversa,” is played with enthusiasm and fine attention to detail.  The three canons – in Hypodiapason, Hypodiatessaron, and “al roverscio et per augmentationem” – all sound very impressive, the canonical design actually being clearer to modern ears than the strict fugal structure of the other pieces.

     The Art of Fugue has long been considered, correctly, a highly academic exercise, and in some ways seems a farewell by Bach to a form of contrapuntal music-making that was already fading by 1750, the composer’s final year.  Certainly there remains plenty of material in this almost 70-minute work for musical analysts to pore over for many years to come.  But one of the pleasures of a performance as good as Guillot’s is that it brings The Art of Fugue alive as music to be heard, not just to be played and analyzed.  If you have mostly heard about this piece, but have shrunk from its complexity and erudition, you will find Guillot’s performance a particularly congenial one.  It does not require you to understand all the ins and outs of the work in order to enjoy it.

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