Notes and Editorial Reviews
The Art of Fugue
Joan Lippincott (org)
GOTHIC 49278 (2 CDs: 94:31)
The Art of Fugue
marches on. Referring to ArkivMusic, this is the 87th recording of it currently available, including versions played by solo keyboardists, string quartets, wind ensembles, and consorts of viols. (I haven’t seen it yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a version existed by a bagpipe group.) One wonders if so many recordings are wanted, let alone necessary, for a work that is largely a pedagogical
study and not a concert piece. I have yet to meet even one person, in my entire life, who told me that they went to hear
The Art of Fugue
in a concert setting, anywhere in the world. Trivia question: Can you tell me how many copies of the sheet music of
The Art of Fugue
were sold, after C. P. E. and J. C. Bach prepared it for publication, between 1751 and 1756? Answer: 30 copies. That’s right, folks. Thirty. And this was after it had been reprinted in 1753 with a new foreword extolling its virtues. By the way, for those who insist that this work should only be played by a group of discrete-sounding instruments in order to follow all the strands of the fugues, C. P. E. Bach made it very clear that his father intended it primarily for study but, if played, to be performed on a “klavier” or organ.
Up until now, my favorite recording of this work was by harpsichordist Fabio Bonizzoni (assisted by Mariko Uchimura in three pieces) on Glossa 31510, largely because I enjoy his bright, sparkling tempos, yet I can see where other listeners may be disappointed that his interpretations are
light. Here we have Joan Lippincott, at age 76, playing this work on her beloved Craighead-Saunders Organ in Christ Church on the campus of the Eastman School of Music. Since she is one of the most highly praised organists of her generation, then, this is an issue that commands respect and serious attention. This is no Young Turk fresh out of the conservatory trying to impress us with her hip young approach to Bach, but a seasoned pro giving us the benefit of a lifetime of thought and feeling as to how this music should go.
She takes a different view of the different fugues and canons in this series, some being played with tremendous
others with bubbling and outgoing enthusiasm, and some being played with a light touch, either as jolly or meditative music. In short, she continually varies her approach, and along the way also varies the volume and stops she employs. Her organ is modeled after a 1776 instrument in Vilnius, thus this is not one of those small, wheezy organs that Bach himself got stuck with (think of Helmut Walcha’s recordings on Archiv), but a medium-sized instrument with a good range of colors and, when needed, surprising power. I appreciate and applaud this approach.
I’m still not entirely convinced that this is concert music
but for home listening Lippincott achieves something that even Bonizzoni does not: She draws the listener inward, building the complete set of pieces as a master programmer might prepare a concert of diverse works by different composers. Keeping one’s attention throughout the
Art of Fugue
is a difficult task regardless of the performer, partly because Bach used the same theme in the same key for every single one of his contrapuncti. Thus, achieving variety in this series is
a challenge, whoever you are, and I think Lippincott is well aware of this.
Another thing that works in her favor is the division of the pieces. CD 1 ends after Contrapunctus 11, and the last three pieces on that disc are played in a lively tempo with full volume and a variety of colorful stops. If you give yourself at least 10 minutes to let it all sink in before you begin CD 2, it helps immeasurably in letting the music play in your mind. In the end, it is exactly this varied approach to the different pieces in this series that made me decide that this is not only a good
Art of Fugue,
recording I want to live with. As much as I enjoyed Bonizzoni’s lively, buoyant approach, he too falls into the trap of playing almost every piece the same way. To me, this is as monotonous as playing every piece in a slow, gloomy manner with little or no inflection or rhythmic buoyancy. Lippincott’s wide variety of tempos, colors, and moods make this, for me, the most fascinating and, possibly, the most enduring
Art of Fugue
ever recorded (and please note, I also enjoy Diana Boyle’s approach).
Thus this somewhat longish review ends on a positive note. I am alternately delighted, thoughtful, excited, and drawn in by Lippincott’s traversal of this knotty music, and I think you will be, too. Highly recommended.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
One of the advantages of performing The Art of Fugue on the organ is the sheer variety of colors available for the various voices, and the ability to use this opportunity to both highlight important thematic material and enliven and enrich the textural effects throughout what can be a rather tedious traversal through the 14 fugues and four canons in the course of one CD program. Usually Bach’s monumental, unfinished compendium of contrapuntal techniques is performed on harpsichord or piano (or, in the case of several of the movements, two harpsichords or pianos), but these tend to be more about the performer’s technical chops than about elucidating the composer’s fundamental instructional point of view.
Organist Joan Lippincott honors Bach’s pedagogical artistry with interpretations that show a studied awareness of the form and structure of each movement applied to imaginative and usually well-conceived registrations. Her best work comes in some of the more complex, extended pieces, including Contrapuncti 8, 10, and 11, and almost invariably she assures that fugal subjects and important internal voices are clearly defined. And her unadorned exploitation of the colors and couplings inherent in the magnificent Craighead-Saunders Organ at Eastman School of Music—a meticulous reconstruction of the late-baroque Casparini organ from the Holy Ghost Church in Vilnius, Luthuania— shows a well-thought sensitivity both to the style of Bach and to a listener’s endurance. Not every choice of stop or tempo is equally winning, and there are odd places where , as almost invariably with organ performances, the coordination of voices is a bit “off”. But ultimately this is a very fine, unpretentious, faithful, technically solid Art of Fugue—and you should know that it ends not with someone or other’s completion, but in the traditionally abrupt manner, with Bach’s last penned notations. Strongly recommended.
-- David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Joan Lippincott (Organ)
Written: circa 1745-1750; Leipzig, Germany
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