Top positive review
44 people found this helpful
THE VERY SOUL OF MUSIC
on September 7, 2006
What you will find on this disc is A) contrapunctus I-IX played on two different organs in 1962; B) contrapunctus I II & IV from a1981 TV broadcast; C) contrapunctus IX XI & XIII in mono from a radio broadcast in 1967; D) the unfinished contrapunctus XIV from what may or may not be the same TV broadcast as B); and as a final filler E) a prelude and fugue on the name BACH from a studio recording in 1980. Items B)-E) are given on the piano.
Gould's organ renderings ran into critical flak at the time, and whether for that reason or because organ-playing aggravated a shoulder condition that the maestro suffered from he never completed the project. The sound of the piano is a little below standard in C), with some background hiss and a slightly emaciated tone, but even it is not really bad, B) and D) are better, and E) better still sound-wise. The sound of the organs has been criticised, but I do not criticise it and indeed it suits me very well. Nothing in the sound-quality from start to finish interferes in any way with my appreciation of Gould's wonderful, visionary and unique Bach-playing.
This disc does not offer you the complete Art of Fugue, so anyone who wants what's here is going to want it for something special in the performance. Gould is always special I guess, but not special in ways that suit everyone. My feeling is that if you are of the school that wants the Art of Fugue played `expressively' you can probably leave this offering alone. Once Gould sets a tempo he sticks to it unflinchingly without rubato, and except for some build-up in the tone as D) progresses there is a very restricted range of dynamics within each piece, although the individual pieces are strongly contrasted in respect of both volume-level and pace. Interestingly, in those numbers which he gives in two different performances, he takes a markedly different approach each time. Conrapunctus II IV and IX are very much faster in the piano version than on the organ, but contrapunctus I on the piano is taken very slowly indeed, lasting nearly twice as long as in the organ account. It is a matter of one's own concept of the work basically. For me, the Art of Fugue is the ultimate in abstract `absolute' music. It is a monument of remote sublimity like pure mathematics or like the stars in the sky, and it is just there for us to wonder at and does not reach out to us or `express' anything. The player's task is to convey its grandeur, and for me Gould does that as no other version, (on any instruments whatsoever - Bach specifies none) has ever done for me, and I feel this most acutely in his much-criticised organ renderings. The organs he uses are not giants, and there is only limited use of the pedals. He uses mainly a detached fingering, although embracing a more legato style in contrapunctus VI. However it stands to reason that the parts in long sustained notes do not admit of the detached treatment, and I love Gould's selection of strongly contrasted stops to assist clarity further. These are the means he adopts. What these means are in furtherance of is an impression of utter grandeur in the sublime march of Bach's polyphony. It is even a privilege to be shown how this grandeur can be viewed from startlingly different angles in his alternative interpretations of 4 of the fugues.
The last fugue from the Art, the unfinished contrapunctus XIV, is taken at a very slow pace and ends abruptly where the dying composer left it. In the normal way of things I detest this procedure - whatever Bach intended it wasn't that, and in a composition that is the ne plus ultra of method many competent musicians have supplied conclusions that must, in the very nature of the case, approximate to what Bach himself would have done. However this was a television performance, and I gather that the camera was made to freeze at this point with Gould's right hand poised dramatically in mid-air. Gould, who kicked Ravel's piano transcription of La Valse into touch and wrote his own, is having none of that when it comes to Bach, and under the circumstances I stifle my own normal reaction to this abrupt hiatus.
One of the most extraordinary things about Bach is how popular he manages to be for all his seeming severity. The Art of Fugue is innocent of the lyricism that was also part of Bach's infinite musical gift, it makes no compromises with us, but I would say to newcomers to the work that Gould's accounts, partial as they are, would be the best place to start to know this unique and towering masterpiece. It is not any indivisible entity in any case. Better, to start with, to hear some of it presented like this than the entire set in many another, perhaps indeed in any other, version.