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Aimard and the Fugue, Part 2

available at Amazon
J. S. Bach, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1, P.-L. Aimard

(released on August 19, 2014)
DG 479 2784 | 112'05"
Pierre-Laurent Aimard is a pianist known for putting together intelligent and challenging recital programs. He is an unflinching modernist, champion of Messiaen and other 20th-century giants, but in recent years he has shown an interest in the fugue, especially in the works of J. S. Bach. A few years ago, he made a recording of Bach's Art of Fugue, and this year he is giving recitals (like one at the Salzburg Festival) featuring the music from his latest disc, the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. This evening at the Library of Congress, he will give a free concert combining a selection of the Book 1 preludes and fugues with music by later fugue-obsessed composers (Beethoven's op. 110, and the Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24, by Brahms).

The new Bach recording is a pleasure to listen to, with an affable quality that seems to reflect the extraordinary sabbatical taken by Aimard as he worked on this music. As revealed in an excellent documentary a few years ago, Aimard submits his performances, and the instruments he plays on, to exacting standards of sound, almost to the point of obsession. Aimard's intensity comes across in his face in live performance, which although one cannot see here is expressed in some deep breaths and sighs captured in the sound. He often takes a no-nonsense approach rhythmically, with the sense of a machine unwinding on a little rotor in the A minor prelude; at the same time, although the pedal is often left untouched, as in the C minor prelude, taken at a serious clip, the playing is expressive, too.

The choice of sometimes bizarre but fun articulations often brought a smile to my face, like the way Aimard wallops the first note of the A major fugue's subject, followed by a rest that dares you to make a sound. A crispness of articulation seems to show an appreciation of HIP players on the harpsichord, heard in the C-sharp prelude and D minor fugue, for example, and the improvisatory freedom of toccata-style preludes like the B-flat major. The sensitivity of touch and sound creates some beautifully layered voicing, as in the pile-up of entrances in the E-flat prelude, which is one of my favorite pieces in the set. The most beautiful performances are the mournful arioso of the E-flat minor prelude, like an operatic recitative accompanied by theorbo, and to a lesser degree the E minor prelude, with its explosion of fast notes.

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