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GG: Art of Fugue

On Wed, 17 Apr 1996, Ryan Anderson wrote:

> 	Did Gould ever make a recording of the Art of the Fugue or the 
> Musical Offering? I am supposed to reccomend 6 recordings of each for 
> ourr library to purchase next year, and I know that I would reccomend ANY 
> recording made by Gould. Can anyone point me towards any recordings of 
> these? 

Of the Art of Fugue, Gould did only #1-9 commercially, and on the organ. 
Some of the other movements are available on piano, from various
airchecks.  But there's nothing complete.  And no Musical Offering.  

But I have almost every Art of Fugue recording ever made (seventeen sets
on CD, plus at least that many more on LP and tape)...and I've performed
the whole thing myself three times so far, on harpsichord.  So may I
suggest the six I'd pick? 

Jordi Savall/Hesperion XX (four viols, four Renaissance winds)
Gustav Leonhardt, the dhm recording (not the early Vanguard one)
Berlin Saxophone Quartet
Herbert Tachezi, organ
Musica Antiqua Koln, solo strings and harpsichords
Marriner/Academy of SMF, chamber orchestra/harpsichords

(Yes, that last one surprised me, too, as I usually don't like Marriner's
work, but this performance brings a lot of clarity and decent style, plus
you get a nice Musical Offering along with it.  It's close between this
one and the Munclinger for modern-orchestra, but Munclinger's players do
weird ugly trills and don't quite have the gracefulness to it.)

It's hard to pick only six.  I would have picked Louis Bagger's on
harpsichord, except that the Leonhardt is an absolute must.  And it would
be nice to have the earlier autograph version among the six; I'd pick Hill
over Gilbert (the only two choices).  Malloch's "The Art of Fuguing" 
(orchestra) is a lot of fun, but too fast.  I'd almost recommend the
Pommer over the Musica Antiqua Koln, for the similar instrumentation but
less neurotic-sounding...yet the MAK has that extra edge of magic at a few
places.  Charles Rosen's on piano is quite good, but it's not on CD.  I'm
still waiting for a two-piano one which I special-ordered to arrive.  The
set by Koopman and Mathot on two harpsichords is interesting and lively,
but too driven and over-ornamented for me.  On organ there are quite a
few, and for me the tough choice at the top is among Tachezi, Rogg, and
Rubsam.  (If you ask, I can go into more detail privately about any of the
40 or so recordings I've heard.)

Keep in mind that the Art of Fugue is first and foremost a *harpsichord*
piece.  That instrument brings the best contrapuntal clarity and rhythmic
verve, all things considered.  And it's clear that Bach fussed with the
parts enough so they'd be playable by two hands, no pedal.  (The last two
times I performed it myself in concert, I did the whole thing on single 8'
register, for that clarity, and for a balance of gentleness and
incisiveness...the instrument is most responsive on single 8', and gives
an intimacy I think is appropriate to the piece.) There really should be a
clavichord recording sometime, but to my knowledge nobody has done one
yet.  It could also be great on Lautenwerck, or by a team of lutenists. 

As for Gould, the assessment you've been waiting for...it's not one of his
best.  Sure, there's more clarity than any other organist gets.  That's
partly from the tight, dry sound.  But the places where he chooses to use
pedal (unnecessarily), it's a bit smudgy.  And there are some glaringly
out-of-tune notes here and there.  And his registrations are often odd. 
And #9 is recorded flat (perhaps corrected in the latest issue).  And the
set isn't complete.  And although his articulations are clear, they sound
more abnormal than they do on the piano; they're not what the music does
naturally.  (He did do most of his practicing for this on the piano, not
on the organ.) The organ doesn't always respond completely to the
articulation he imposes on these pieces.  Gould's is a good recording to
have for reference in a larger collection, but I wouldn't put it among the
top dozen.  If you must get it, try to get that Masterworks Portrait
coupling that puts it together with Gould's even weirder recording on
harpsichord of four Handel suites.  It's nice that CBS put both of Gould's
funky commercial non-piano performances onto the same CD, at midprice. 
But I think it's out of print by now, replaced by the expensive Gould

Note: the Canadian Brass' recording of the Art of Fugue is dedicated to
the memory of Gould, even though they don't play it in any way that sounds
like him....and it's just not very interesting, compared with others. 

Anyway, there are some [unsolicited] opinions about my favorite piece of 
all time.  :)

Bradley Lehman, bpl@umich.edu       http://www-personal.umich.edu/~bpl/