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Briefly Noted: Rousset's Artful Fugue

available at Amazon
Bach, Die Kunst der Fuge
, Christophe Rousset
(released on January 12, 2024)
Aparté AP313D | 83'02"
Christophe Rousset waited until he was nearly 60 years old to record J.S. Bach's Die Kunst der Fuge for the first time. Captured at the Hôtel de l’Industrie in Paris toward the end of the pandemic year (November 29 to December 2, 2020), this new disc quickly rises to the top of the list of recordings on harpsichord, which actually are not that numerous. It is certainly in the running with Gustav Leonhardt's two recordings, as well as the exhaustively complete version by Davitt Moroney. Both of those were made decades ago. Rousset plays on a German harpsichord made by an anonymous craftsman, now in an unnamed private collection. The sound is close and warm, showing off the musician's smooth, connected touch and his patient unwinding of the piece's contrapuntal complexities, at often introspective, leisurely tempi.

Rousset has chosen not to record the incomplete "Fuga a tre soggetti" added as Contrapunctus XIV to the 1751 edition of the work, the version edited by and possibly added to by Bach's sons. (Leonhardt also left this final piece of the posthumous edition unrecorded, while Moroney composed his own completion of it.) A brilliant booklet essay by Gaëtan Naulleau, a musicologist at the University of Tours and formerly a recording reviewer and editor at Diapason, explains the thinking behind rejecting this late addition to the score. After playing Contrapunctus I to XIII in order, Rousset concludes with the four canons, leaving Canon I to the very end.

After treating Contrapunctus XIV as spurious, it seemed a little odd to include the two-harpischord arrangement of Contrapunctus XIII, a version also included only in the 1751 edition published after the elder Bach's death. The younger Belgian harpsichordist Korneel Bernolet takes the second part in this piece, a gesture recalling the younger Rousset's doing the same with his older colleague, Christopher Hogwood, many years ago: a sense of in turn handing on a tradition is poignant as Rousset himself moves closer to retirement. (Bernolet has assisted Rousset, as both conductor and harpsichordist with his ensemble Les Talens Lyriques, since 2014.) Both Contrapunctus XII and XIII are mirror fugues, meaning that the original notation of the fugue and its mirror notation, with all the parts inverted, both adhere to all the rules of counterpoint. Rousset and Bernolet play both rectus and inversus versions of both pieces, presumably adding their own arrangement of Contrapunctus XII for two harpsichords.

Naulleau, in his essay, notes an interesting possibility, that Bach's title for this dense work, The Art of Fugue, could be seen as a clapback aimed at an anonymously penned article lamenting that Bach had obscured his musical genious by an "Allzu-grosse Kunst" (all-too-great art). Indeed, for most listeners, the unrelenting contrapuntal density of the work can be stultifying if listened to in a single go. "One person, however, can follow the work from beginning to end without exhausting himself," he writes, "thanks to his profession, his training and the support of the score: the performer. For the pianist and musicologist Charles Rosen, The Art of Fugue is 'above all, a work to be played for oneself, to be felt under one's fingers as much as listened to'." One is only too happy to accompany Rousset as he goes on that journey.

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jfl said...

As much as I remember finding the austerity of the work "difficult", in my earlier Bach-days, I've since come to love it and embrace it, entirely... as pure joy. It's exactly what I love Bach for, so much. A celestial pulse bringing me in touch with my ternity (vulgo: finiteness).

Charles T. Downey said...