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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on August 6, 2005
This is a partial performance on organ paired with a partial performance on piano. I didn't care too much for the organ (although Gould's very "un-organistic" articulation does work with these pieces, I miss the unique expression of his piano playing). Some of the piano recordings sound like somebody surreptitiously taped them on a concealed tape recorder.

If you want a complete Art of Fugue on piano that's as close to Gould as it gets, go with Tatiana Nikolayeva's stellar 2 CD-recording on Hyperion (CDA66631/2). I have 9 AoF performances in my collection (piano, organ, string quartet, Hermann Scherchen's orchestral arrangement), and Nikolayeva's set is my favorite by far. (It also includes the two Ricercars from The Musical Offering BWV1079 and the four Duets BWV 802-805, originally for organ.)

However, if you're as much of a Bach nut as I am, the Gould CD is worth getting just for Gould's incredible performance of Contrapunctus XIV (the final unfinished fugue).
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on December 7, 2002
I must admit hearing Gould's staccatto playing of the organ first left me cold; but on the second hearing, the clarity of counterpoint came vividly to life. The piano fugues are all very moving albeit occasionally eccentric. The inclusion of BWV 898, a rarity, very doubtful and very Beethovenian is an additional pleasure. Whoever wrote it, it is an excellent piece of music.
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on March 7, 2003
This is my first Glenn Gould CD. At first, I was surprised by his staccato organ playing, but I soon began to really enjoy the CD. Some may find Mr. Gould's humming annoying, but I found it amusing (it doesn't bother me much). I only heard the humming on the tracks with piano and found that Gould was really into Bach. I have heard Glenn Gould's playing on the radio and must say that he is truly a master of Bach's keyboard music. The sound quality is good and the jewel case is very nice. I highly recommend this item if you like Bach, Gould, or both.
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on November 29, 2003
I absolutely love all the works played by Glenn Gould. Why 3 stars then? For a long time I have loved every work that Gould brought to life and I still absolutely love them. However, "The Art of the Fugue" really made me see some of Glenn's dark side. The flaw is that his high speeds have absolutely no excuse on this marvelous piece of creation. It is true that Gould is the best pianist when it comes to playing Bach, but to understand what I mean, go and listen to Contrapunctus IV by some other performer who plays it much slower than Glenn. I personally recommend especially the trumpet version. It will blow your mind and convince you that Gould's performance of this piece was really hiding its magnificent beauty and drama. It is simply not possible to express something so breathtakingly dramatic by playing it staccato and also too fast. Have you ever seen someone who had a great loss crying by short stops and very fast? I don't suppose so. And the comparison is very fair because all the instruments, especially the piano, were created to resemble the human voice. `Art of the Fugue' is nothing like the Goldberg Variations where Gould's touch made the music beautiful, especially the first slow movement (which he actually plays very slowly and hence compensates for the staccato). It is much more dramatic and the performer's first goal must be to convey the drama to the listener.

Who am I to judge Glenn? I just have had the privilege to listen closely to titans like S. Richter, E. Gilels, A. Rubinstein, A.Schnabel, S. Rachmaninoff, V. Horowitz, and many others. Not to mention that so far I have listened to the complete works of over 40 composers. Again, Glenn Gould plays beautifully, especially Bach's faster pieces, where even Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter can't do such a precise and concise interpretation. But we must remember that Glenn is a great pianist, but a pianist that can't even match with the Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach (I have heard Glenn's compositions). It is ironic that listeners give so much credit to Gould that they absolutely forget that the only reason that he is able to play such beautiful pieces is because Bach has created them in the first place! With this in mind, we still can accept new ways of interpretation of Bach, BUT NOT TO THE POINT THAT IT DECREASES THE INTRINSIC VALUE OF BACH'S COMPOSITIONS. Glenn does not do this often, but it is shocking that he chose to show his over-interpretation on a work that is considered to be the most important one in the entire classical repertoire. If Glenn was made to play these pieces by his contractors then the flaws can be partially forgiven.

It all comes down to this: this work should by no means put Gould's abilities in question, since he is indeed the best Bach interpreter of this century. However, one must not be blinded and be focused on any singular performer for the interpretation of all the pieces in the classical repertoire - Gould might outdo Horowitz in performing the `Emperor Concerto' (Beethoven) and Gilels in playing Bach's `French Suites', but when it comes to pieces like Beethoven's "The Tempest," his staccato is not in its right medium and becomes a cat's play compared to the powerful fingers of Richter.
(I have heard over one hundred pieces by Gould and could barely notice his humming. Why? Because I hum with him! So please do not complain since a real classical listener should not even notice the humming. Imagine listening to someone talking and at the same time listening to Bach. As far as I am concerned, you shouldn't even be able to notice that that person even exists).

EDIT: After some years (7 years!), I am amending my original rating - it is definitely worth five stars. Yes, perhaps this recoding comes as a little dry, but it is supposed to be on the piano - after all, it was written for the harpsichord, which is as dry as it gets. In addition, this piece is so moving that the listener can often forget that this is not from the Romantic era. After years of listening to this piece, Gould's recording is the only one that I keep going back to - I just can't get tired of it.

If you'd like a more "romantic" approach to this piece (which is unlikely to be in Bach's style), you can try other pianists (I don't have any favorites other than Gould), or better yet, you can check out this piece on other instruments, such as the version for string quartet by Emerson Quarter or the orchestral version by Karl Munchinger. This is not to say that Gould's performance is not moving, but he takes the more lively approach to this piece EXCEPT, except in the mellifluous last (unifinshed) Contrapunctus 18: Fuga A 3 Soggetti. Gould caresses that piece so gently and dramatically on the piano that no other can match him on a keyboard. That alone deserves five stars.
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on January 12, 2009
There never was another Bach interpreter the likes of Glenn Gould. And this recording is as good an example as any of his unique style--which made him both a worshiped cult figure and an object of scorn. Objectively, his playing is highly skilled but often erratic. On this recording, more than many others, his trademark sing-along humming is plain--often off-key, sometimes inventing another fugue part.

Probably no other performer was ever as fully immersed in the music of Bach. Gould made it his lifelong passion, almost to the exclusion of other composers. The result is both exciting and exasperating. I think Gould's Bach recordings, especially this one, with all of its oddities and weaknesses, should have a place in the music library of every serious music listener, especially of those who understand and appreciate Bach.

I give this only four stars because the recording technique and re-mastering are often uneven. Recordings made at different times under differing circumstances are placed in sequence with obvious discontinuity. But those are quibbles.

This should not be the only recording one has of this music. Its faults are too many. Nevertheless, I rate it a "must have" in spite of its obvious weaknesses.
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on May 12, 2014
After listening to the first 15 seconds of the first sound sample anyone who knows organ music can hear Gould playing "stacatto" meaning that he never learn to properly play the instrument which, alas, has no sustain pedal like the piano (although Gould generally neglected it as well). Unless you are an uncritical Gould fanatic, you will will find much more satisfying interpretations by actual organists elsewhere...
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on December 8, 2014
This CD is worth every penny just for the piano recordings. I am a huge lover of Bach's Art of the Fugue (Pierre-Laurant Aimard + Tatiana Nikolayeva being my favorite perfumers) and I am nuts about Gould so this is pure pleasure. I can't comment on the organ particularly as it isn't the medium of choice for AoF, but I imagine I'll come back to it at some point.... Also, the paper foldout cover is a very nice touch. A+
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on June 13, 2014
an absolute must have for music lovers of any capacity.

Contrapunctus VI on organ, performed by G.G.- a personal favorite of mine.

Nice to hear him playing organ, a nice compliment for any of G.G.'s Bach recordings for Piano.
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on December 19, 2012
this to compare with other recordings of Art of the Fugue. G. G. was a Bach expert but I feel that early in his career he was a bit too technical and often played, i. m. o. , faster than the compositions warranted. A matter of taste I suppose. I do however prefer Gould's later recordings
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