Sunday, March 6, 2011

Johann Sebastian Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge - Kenneth Gilbert

Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge
Kenneth Gilbert
Archiv 427 673-2

Gramophone 4/1990, Nicholas Anderson The Art of Fugue or ''complete practical fugal work'', as C. P. E. Bach described his father's giant contrapuntal achievement, is well represented in the current recording catalogue. The approaches to it vary considerably with performances on solo keyboard—harpsichord and organ—and mixed ensembles with markedly different shades of instrument colour. Varied too, is the sequence in which the performers play the fugal parts which comprise the whole. Some complete the final fugue, some do not; some find a place for all the pieces included in the posthumous original edition of 1751, others have given reasons for omitting those which seem not to play a directly relevant part in Bach's scheme. Kenneth Gilbert leads us down another fascinating path his performance on a solo harpsichord follows not the 1751 printed edition but Bach's own autograph material differing from the other both in content and layout.

In a lucid, informative essay, the Bach scholar Christoph Wolff lays before the reader the chief differences between the sources, and in the course of doing so arrives at interesting conclusions relating both to Bach's intentions and to the extended period of time over which he was intermittently occupied with this great project. The autograph material which forms the basis of this performance falls into two sections—a self-contained volume in open score consisting of 12 fugues and two canons in fair copy and a supplement consisting of revisions and newly-composed pieces. Gilbert only plays the music in the self-contained volume following the order in which the pieces are numbered: three fugues in simple counterpoint five fugues in double counterpoint; two canons and two mirror fugues with their inversions. Thus we arrive at four fewer movements than the 1751 printed version. Those omitted from the autograph correspond with the Neue Bach-Ausgabe edition Nos. 4 (Contrapunctus IV), 16, 17 (Canon alla decima/Canon alla duodecima) and 18 (the so-called ''Fuga a 3 Soggetti'' whose place in the musical scheme of The Art of Fugue has been challenged by Gustav Leonhardt and others but more recently defended).

Gilbert's playing is disciplined with a rigour that complements the character of Bach's contrapuntal design. A certain stiffness in his approach which would be less welcome elsewhere, gives his reading a deliberate emphasis which suits the majority of the fugues. Yet I felt the need for less deliberation than that with which Gilbert treats the two concluding mirror fugues (Neue Bach-Ausgabe Nos. 12 and 13). Didactic they are, certainly, but it is the spirit of the dance which has the upper hand here and I longed for a more light-hearted approach. Nevertheless, this is an impressive recital and no admirer of Bach's profound science will feel justified in passing it by. The recording is clear, the documentation informative and the harpsichord itself a fine-sounding Flemish one of the late seventeenth century enlarged by Blanchet and Taskin well into the following one. A stimulating release.

Nicholas Anderson, Gramophone Magazine

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