Bach: The Art of Fugue
Few pianists have recorded a more enterprising or vibrant repertoire than Joanna MacGregor, with the stress on continuities as well as contrasts and on the eternal verities underlying music of seemingly irreconcilable diversity. Now, following hard on the heels of her magnificent set of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards Sur L’Enfant Jèsus, she takes on an even more daunting task, coupling one of music’s profoundest enigmas with dazzling contemporary virtuosity. In her witty and incisive notes, MacGregor gently but firmly compels us to hear a vital relationship between eighteenth- and twentieth-century composers who see fugue and canon as the highest musical good, a ‘sounding mathematics’ which ‘achieves a depth and simplicity and at times a luminous serenity’. MacGregor claims she has listened to recordings of what is arguably Bach’s summa on the harpsichord, orchestra, baroque ensemble, organ, piano, brass and saxophone quartets and, like Glenn Gould, she relishes its inviolate nature, its sublime lack of exclusivity. Much of this would remain mere theory if Joanna MacGregor’s performances did not testify to her sense of Bach’s richness, intellectual grace and cunning. Immaculate, lucid and sensitive she reveals The Art of Fugue as an incomparable act of meditation and makes comparisons, even with pianists such as Tatyana Nikolaieva or Grigory Sokolov seem peculiarly irrelevant. The recordings are magnificent, and all in all this is an indispensable issue for all intrepid explorers and for all musicians who relish a supreme play of the mind and imagination.
MacGregor’s Art of Fugue is warm and welcoming, her gentler touch in the opening Contrapunctus 1 promising a more involving ride from the outset. This is carried through in the playing further on, with Contrapunctus 3 as an example, presenting the lines of counterpoint with well defined character and lyricism at the same time. MacGregor can be more playful as well; her swifter Contrapunctus 4 is full of uplifting little touches of articulation – a delightful cascade of notes rather than an avalanche. Her sense of shape in each piece is very nicely done, and taken with an uncomplicated logic which guides the listener through Bach’s most mind-mangling of technical labyrinths. The contrasts between each piece also keep the ear alert, and help prevent intellectual overload. I wouldn’t want to be without this…. the piece is turned into something timeless and monumental, as Sviatoslav Richter did with some of his Bach Preludes and Fugues.