Two mature pianists, both renowned for their Bach interpretations and with numerous acclaimed recordings to their names—but both of whom, until now, have fought shy of Bach’s final, uncompromisingly contrapuntal masterpiece. In the booklet notes with their respective new recordings, Angela Hewitt and Zhu Xiao-Mei both admit to having put off the inevitable: coming to terms with The Art of Fugue.
Unlike the rest of the established Bach keyboard repertoire, The Art of Fugue’s scoring is ambiguous, each line written out on a separate stave. For the first edition published in 1751, a year after Bach’s death, his son Carl Philipp Emanuel is clear: ‘everything has … been arranged for use at the harpsichord or organ’—yet it has been argued that the occasional awkward leap means the work is not fully renderable on a keyboard (opening the door to some highly effective performances by all manner of instrumental ensembles). Interestingly, though, neither Hewitt nor Xiao-Mei cites this as a reason f or her lack of enthusiasm for the task.
With its intensely concentrated and complex fugal writing, and devoid of the light relief provided by the preludes in The Well-Tempered Clavier, it is easy to see why The Art of Fugue can appear, in Hewitt’s words, severe, daunting and completely overwhelming, even to musicians like her and Xiao-Mei who live and breathe Bach. Hewitt says she needed ‘great determination’ to get to grips with a work which had never excited her very much on account of its perceived dryness, and once she had finally set to work on it in 2012, its technical complexity made the Goldberg Variations and The Well-Tempered Clavier ‘seem like child’s play in comparison’; Xiao-Mei ‘has never suffered so much when practising a work’, such are its emotional and physical demds—'I was sore all over’.
We can only be thankful that they persevered. Each pianist brings her considerable experience and expertise to bear, meeting the work’s formidable challenges with individual, complementary performances. Both, in their different ways, are deeply musical, finding satisfying and engaging solutions to a potentially unpalatable 72 (Xiao-Mei) to 84 (Hewitt) minutes’ worth of fugues and canons in a single key, D minor, all based on a single portentous theme.
Hewitt’s account, characteristically, is clean and precise but always pianistic—she never seems, like some pianists, to be imitating a harpsichord, whereas her delicate touch means that the music is not burdened with undue heaviness. Her ‘Contrapunctus 2’, for example, dances with (relatively) carefree abandon. Hewitt is fluent and homogenous, her effective expressive and dynamic contrasts made subtly within an overarching, unifying concept, solemn but not overbearing.
Xiao-Mei is more robust, and more extreme in terms of dynamics. In her hands the austere fugal theme often grabs attention from within the texture with prominent weight (occasionally too forcibly), but this is tempered with flowing gentleness—the opening of ‘Contrapunctus 3’ and the ‘Canon alla decima in contrapunto alla terza’, for example, softly caress the ears. Xiao-Mei is consistently faster too, but she never feels rushed or perfunctory (just as Hewitt never feels too indulgent—perhaps proving that The Art of Fugue stands outside usual measures of time). A direct comparison with the piece in which the two versions differ most widely duration-wise—‘Contrapunctus 11’ (5'30" against 7'03")—reveals Hewitt to be dreamy and possibly a shade pedantic, while Xiao-Mei is alert and forthright, taking the bull by the horns. Both versions work in the context of their respective wholes.
To maximise the variety, Xiao-Mei intersperses the 14 ‘Contrapunctus’ fugues with the ‘Canons’, which, in the score, follow; Hewitt plays everything in published order. In both versions, ‘Contrapunctus 14’—by far the longest of the fugues—is cut off abruptly in its prime, unfinished as Bach left it. It’s an arresting conclusion—a powerful reminder of mortality following such ethereal music—but for those who need closure, Hewitt offers the chorale prelude BWV668a, which C. P. E. Bach inserted on the last blank page of the score, as a cathartic final track. This is especially fitting for a performance, recorded at the Jesus-Christus Church in Berlin, which, despite its clear textures, is above all contemplative and other- worldly. Xiao-Mei, recorded at the Leipzig Gewandhaus’s Mendelssohn Hall, and also well defined, is more exciting and more alive, gripping where Hewitt is entrancing.
Both versions, highly recommendable, have much to offer. If your budget will stretch only to one (both are full price—Hewitt’s comes on two CDs for the price of one), I would edge towards Xiao-Mei for the vitality she brings to potentially prosaic music—heavenly, yes, but also very human. It’s a personal choice, though—both views of the work are valid, and you won’t go wrong with either.