JS Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080 by Kimiko Ishizaka
It is easy to marginalize Bach’s last work, his “Art” of the “Fuga” as an esoteric, mind-bending intellectual pursuit: the ultimate expression of one man’s obsessive reliance upon counterpoint. And it’s not a jibe against the work, for I hope to be consumed at some level with understanding the intellectual aspects of Bach’s fugues for as long as I can breathe and listen. However, it is a criticism against thinking of this music only in the context of puzzles and conundrums.
For those not aware, the pianist Kimiko Ishizaka has been associated now for many years with the Open Goldberg project. (Visiting this site in October 2018 flags a security risk on my computer, noting their invalidated and expired security certificate.) The aim was to “open source” the Goldberg Variations: scores, there was an app at one point, and the recording Ishizaka made. That desire made the background behind this project somewhat interesting. In retrospect, I found her Goldberg Variations a very competent recording, but it was ultimately one that was almost purposefully bland. The recording was beautifully pristine. And I remembered thinking the whole project made the work more accessible, especially for study.
Later projects have used a “pay what you will” fee for recordings. I purchased her Well-Tempered Clavier and received the full-resolution digital files. I had much the same reaction, but again, thought the recorded sound quality was quite excellent. If anything had changed in her performance, it was that there was now at least some interpretive edge to some of the preludes and fugues.
And now we have BWV 1080, Die Kunst der Fuge. And the part that got me was the little inscription at the top of the album cover: with completion by the pianist. Because if you’re reading this blog, you might as well admit you already know that Bach’s last work was left unfinished. The piece ends shortly after Bach introduces his own theme: B-flat-A-C-B-natural. And while solutions to this Fuga a 3 soggetti have been suggested, not many of them are recorded.
Ishizaka has produced a beautiful-sounding recording. She and her team have the ears on how to mike and capture a full-bodied piano with just the appropriate amount of reverb. Her touch has enough detachment that I believe respects the historical performance aesthetic, at least as much as one can on the modern piano. We could all make the case for 1080 on the piano for multiple reasons. For Ishizaka, she uses dynamics to help expose different voices among the canons and contrapuncti.
Well, this is the best Ishizaka performance to date. Wow! Without much help at all from J.S.B., she provides distinct character for each movement. Some are punchy and loud; some are more demure; tempo is used to really great effect. I definitely see a trajectory in her Bach recordings, moving toward performances that not only present the music in an open and transparent way on the piano, but also now are more than ever a reflection of the artist and her take on each piece.
(As an aside, Keith Jarrett, in his first WTC recording, on piano, tried “saying nothing at all,” in a very controlled and ultimately boring performance. The idea, if I remember correctly, was to let the music speak for itself. And as much as that minimalist approach sounds tantalizing in theory, this music, especially this music, needs the whiff of human intervention and involvement. To rob music of interpretation is, I think, an ultimately silly pursuit.)
The piece starts innocently enough; presented between mezzo-piano and mezzo-forte. By the time we get to Contrapunctus 8, she’s taken things full-tilt, and what a wild ride! The push on tempo and forte dynamics make this a very interesting performance. The intensity is great.
Her playing throughout is confident and even; we can hear it in examples such as my favorite movement, Contrapunctus 9, or in the inversus of Contrapunctus 13. I can’t say that these two examples are metronome-locked, but there’s enough drive and sense of propulsion in each that I think matches the music well. This is a stylistic reading and I think she gets the style right.
I own quite a few recordings of 1080 and my ultimate reason for purchasing this one was to experience her conclusion to the unfinished fugue. She opens playing it not too slow (as oft times I think it is played by others), but adopts the same articulate touch that she’s employed before we start this track. She likewise doesn’t really hold back at all for the presentation of the BACH theme. There is a weird little cadence before 6:30, then after 6:40 we jump into the “new” material. By 7:10 or so, I’m no longer listening to Bach. We are listening to Ishizaka.
She writes in the notes that instead of trying to incorporate the opening theme, which some believe is what Bach may have intended, she instead chose to close the piece using the supplied themes already presented.
While I applaud any musician to tackle the ending, I only wish Ishizaka would have also recorded the movement “as written,” or as left” by Bach. While her conclusion to the piece technically works, it’s insufficient to bring closure to the weight of music that precedes it. Alone, it needs something after it to draw the larger work to a fitting close.
The solution to the final fugue is, for me, disappointing.
But it’s the only real disappointment in this recording.
Before closing, I brought out another recording on piano, the one released in 2014 by Angela Hewitt. She begins the final fugue much slower, using a legato touch. Hewitt brings a more nuanced and ultimately less clinical feel to the music. Her design is to increase the intensity of this piece until we cadence right before the BACH theme. The presentation of that theme is then a big contrast; almost all at once we are put back into the same sound world in which the movement starts. I like this interpretation overall better. The ending of the piece unfinished, as sad as it is, ultimately is more convincing than the solution proposed in this new recording.
But the contrast also reveals in Ishizaka’s recording the beauty in her touch and her foray into performing with marked intensity. And for me there’s a welcome place for both recordings on my (virtual) shelf: the two form a trio of strong piano readings alongside that of Vladimir Feltsman.