Classical CD Reviews

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano – Deutsche Grammophon

An almost 80-minute-long metaphysical and intoxicating battering of what many of us think of as the usual J.S. Bach sensibility.

Published on February 20, 2008

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano – Deutsche Grammophon
BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) – Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano – Deutsche Grammophon 477 7345 (or download from dgwebshop.com), 79 mins. *****:

As the recording industry continues to realign–the latest being Universal snapping up ASV (for, I am told, not their fabulous classical division but their reggae wing!) new releases of incredible interest and diversity keep coming along for us to marvel at and delight in.

Take Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s new recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue for Deutsche Grammophon. The Art is hardly a popular work, even for Bach aficionados, but it is a fascinating choice in light of how Aimard’s career has been so deeply rooted in music of the 20th century.

Consider the milestones in Aimard’s career: Born in 1957, he became a founding member of the Ensemble InterContemporain in 1977, at the invitation of Pierre Boulez. He made his American debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the age of twenty, performing the piano solo part in Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie. He was the soloist in the premieres of works such as Répons by Pierre Boulez, Klavierstück XIV by Karlheinz Stockhausen, and the eleventh and thirteenth piano études of György Ligeti (and one of his most notable recordings is that of the first two books of Ligeti’s piano études). He has also performed the work of contemporary composers such as George Benjamin and Marco Stroppa. Aimard was one of Carnegie Hall’s “Perspectives” artists for the 2006-2007 concert season, where he programmed his own series of concerts.

And yet, it probably shouldn’t be such a surprise that Aimard chose Bach to make his debut on Deutsche Grammophon. Like many before him, he was always determined, he said in a recent interview, “to explore Bach’s music more intensively at some point in my life, and The Art of Fugue is a composition that has haunted me for a long time,” adding that “Bach’s music is of such richness that it requires you to take your time. It’s so lofty, so multifarious, so powerfully organized, and such a synthesis of the music of the 18th century and earlier periods, that it demands a long association.”

The result is an almost 80-minute-long metaphysical and intoxicating battering of what many of us think of as the usual J.S. Bach sensibility. Not that Aimard’s performance on a gorgeously recorded modern piano, with just a touch too much of reverb, is brutal; it just seems that way from time to time as he explores and stretches the huge dimensions of the music in a way that Bach must have had in mind somewhere in his subconscious.

As Aimard moves powerfully through the labyrinth of Bach’s thought, and the possibilities of the fugue heard through a lens looking back 250 years in time, it is as if he were projecting the music onto the large dome-shaped projection screen of a musical planetarium, on which the musical equivalents of stars, planets and other celestial objects are being made to appear and move realistically to simulate the complex motions of musical fugues. There are moments of extraordinary tenderness that take your breath away. There are moments when all motion seems to stand still. There is never anything that is routine, nothing that makes you wonder whether you’ve heard this before.

Asked about the best instrument for performing Art, Aimard answered, “Properly regulated, the modern piano of our day, with its wide range of possibilities, is an excellent instrument for The Art of Fugue, allowing a realization that is both convincing and unrestricted.” Asked what he meant by “properly regulated,” Aimard answered that he made “alchemical adjustments, which permit pieces written for instruments of a different age, with their own weight, articulation and sonorities, to find a natural realization on a ‘monster’ like the modern piano.”

Not sure I like it, and sure that I don’t what know Aimard means by “alchemical adjustments,” but I couldn’t tear myself away until I had heard every note.

– Laurence Vittes




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