BACH Art of Fugue. Partita No.2. Sokolov (Opus 111) – INKPOT

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Die Kunst Der Fuge, BWV 1080

Partita No.2 in C minor, BWV 826


Opus 111 OPS 52-9116/17
2 discs [110:20] mid-price

Reissued 2000

by Jonathan Yungkans
An embarrassment of riches has flowed from the 250th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the keyboard department, we have had no less than three new top-notch recordings of the Goldberg Variations, from Angela Hewitt , Evgeni Koroliov and Murray Perahia, and that is only the top layer of riches that have been unearthed. But this disc is perhaps the most valuable jewel in that treasury, a mid-price reissue of what is probably the greatest Bach keyboard recording ever made.

Born in 1950 in what is now Saint Petersburg, Grigory Sokolov (left) showed musical promise early on. Enrolled at age seven in a conservatory program for exceptionally gifted students, giving his first public recital at 12 and winning the 1966 Tchaikovsky Competition at 16, he has concertized considerably but recorded little, preferring the atmosphere of live music-making. Our loss.

Though Sokolov’s performing style has many things in common with other Russian pianists – strong passagework, impeccable finger work and an array of tone colors that is literally off the scale – it is his musicality and imagination that put him in a class by himself. Able to rethink virtually everything he plays and deliver it with phenomenal mastery, he can seem eccentric at times, though never sounding contrived.

He also plays counterpoint like no one else since Glenn Gould, with phenomenal clarity and independence of phrasing. Take, for instance, Die Kunst Der Fuge (The Art of Fugue). Sokolov opens Contrapunctus 1 with a hushed intensity of expectation, yet quickly gives each line not only its own color, but often its own phrasing and rhythm, as though four different individuals are playing the same music. These four characters interact with one another, combining, harmonizing, going off in their own directions, but without any sense of anarchy whatsoever and with consummate taste.

As the sequence of fugues progresses, Sokolov maintains this ever-changing dialogue of voices, unearthing fresh details right and left while unifying the whole composition into one overreaching arch. He brings quite a spring into the march-like figures of Contrapunctus 2, whose cadence is mirrored, at a slower tempo, in the dancing Contrapunctus 3. The vivacity of this fugue, in turn, enlivens the next in a shower of half-lights and arabesques that continue to glow, with different colors, though the elegant, longer lines and more measured tempo of Contrapunctus 5. Sokolov continues linking the fugues rhythmically and coloristically in as masterly a fashion as Bach does thematically.

At the same time, this is not Bach on piano as usual. Sokolov is not afraid to use the resources of a concert grand to illustrate his points, but does so judiciously. He follows a mid-way course between Angela Hewitt’s gentle tints and the bright Romantic hues of an Edwin Fischer or Alfred Brendel, allowing broader washes of sound than in Baroque practice but without sacrificing clarity or illumination of musical architecture.

None of this is done in show or ostentation. There is an extreme probity of thought and depth of emotion working side-by-side that would suggest a monk in an in-depth, personal convocation with the Creator of the universe about how and why the cosmos works in the way that it does. As Johann D’Souza mentioned in his review of this work with the Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet , Leonard Bernstein claimed that one has to look for God in Bach’s works because all of Bach’s life revolved around God. If that is so, then Bach was on the hot line with the Almighty while writing the Art of the Fugue, and Sokolov is evidently using the same phone.

He changes the order of fugues in one crucial spot, opening the second disc with Contrapunctus 19 (the last one Bach wrote) and continuing from there to Contrapuncti 14 through 17. While some purists may wonder about this practice, it is understandable. Since Sokolov makes no effort to complete Contrapunctus 19, reordering the fugues in this way allows Bach’s edifice to be convincingly rounded off while remaining true to the music at hand.

It also gives a much-needed emotional release. The concentrated passion Sokolov brings to Contrapunctus 19 is nearly overwhelming (I have yet to hear it without tears coming to my eyes), and when that thread suddenly snaps where Bach leaves off, some sort of closure is desperately needed (hence the efforts from Donald Tovey, Ferruccio Busoni and others to “complete” Bach’s final thoughts). Sokolov provides that closure. Though the transition from the end of Contrapunctus 19 to the beginning of Contrapunctus 14 can seem a little strange, not to mention rough, he holds things together admirably without losing either his concentration or our interest. It is not a perfect solution – nor perhaps could there be an entirely satisfactory resolution – but it is an extremely workable one.

The Second Partita that follows The Art of Fugue is as masterly as what preceded it, with an excellent sense of flow, pointed rhythms and imaginative characterization of contrapuntal lines married to an unerring sense of drama and a noble tone. Sokolov will change a tone color, bring out a counter-rhythm or end a phrase in unexpected ways, though in no way jarringly. Everything is done with grace, charm and a captivating sense of fantasy.

One thing missing is the serenity that Angela Hewitt brings to this Partita. Everything is moving constantly. There is no true sense of relaxation; even in the Sarabande, a tension pulls the listener along, even at times when a momentary respite would be welcome. Nevertheless, Sokolov’s version has many things going for it. He opens the Rondeau with a resolute elegance and sway to its rhythms that can be intoxicating, and carries that grace into the concluding Capriccio, along with a snap in its step.

If you have thought that The Art of Fugue was something dry, academic or esoteric, or gotten that impression from other recordings, I would urge you to give this disc a listen. It may not only change your mind, but will introduce you to someone who is not only a world-class pianist, but one of the few today who could honestly be called a phenomenon in music.

“Two Profiles of Grigory Sokolov,” available through 2.htm

At the risk of sounding retro-60s, JONATHAN YUNGKANS‘ brain is still way out in space after venturing into the unknown with Contrapunctus 19. Cosmic, man.

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