Kimiko Ishizaka has already recorded J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Well-Tempered Clavier. Here she surmounts his other great compendium for the keyboard (on which Art of Fugue is usually interpreted, despite Bach’s non-specific score) and offers her own completion of the final ‘Fuga a 3 Soggetti’ which is handed down incomplete in the surviving manuscript. For no obvious reason Art of Fugue is split over two discs (even though it would have easily fitted onto one) between ‘Contrapunctus XI’ and ‘Contrapunctus XII’. That happens to mark a notable difference in her approach to these two randomly distributed halves (though presumably not deliberate) and it is not clear whether different recording conditions between the two is the cause.
‘Contrapunctus XII’ is the first of the two ‘mirror’ Fugues, each comprising two sections – one the exact inversion of the foregoing part. Despite Bach’s extraordinary technical facility, which can only really be appreciated on paper, Ishizaka charms the ear with the serene performance of XII, and her crisp, playful manner in the triplets of XIII. If the former delivery recalls the calm, pellucid beauty of Angela Hewitt’s playing, the latter is reminiscent of Zoltán Kocsis’s approach in this work.
It is a pity, then, that the movements in the first half are rather more heavy-handed. The fast scales and sequences of IX are not really shaped into distinctive, expressive phrases, although they do trip along more easily and nimbly than the dotted rhythms of II, the chains of quavers in III and V, and the repeated sidewise descending figure of VIII, which all become relentless and unyielding.
There are redeeming features, however. Where the latter motif recurs in XI – ascending as well as descending – it becomes more spirited, and its initial fragmented subjected is treated with a vivacious quirkiness that recalls. IV and V are more steady and refined, but legato eludes her, as does a dance-like levity in the latter, in favour of a starkly delineated execution of the counterpoint, which would be less a problem if the recording were less close and the notes not fall so heavily upon.
Although the emotional range of the Canons in the second half is kept within tight limits, they convey definite character, which would have been welcome in the earlier Fugues. Hence the detachment and reserve of the Canons per Augmentationem and alla Decima bring out their counterpoint sympathetically, whilst a contrasting sense of motion and vigour characterises the Canons alla Ottava and alla Duodecima. Those who think of the final Contrapunctus, XIIII, as a solemn contrapuntal essay, personalised with the inclusion of B-A-C-H in musical form, may be pleasantly surprised by its jaunty progress at first, with the second subject in a breathless rush, breaking off its third subject. For her completion Ishizaka simply finishes that section, leaving the movement as a triple fugue, rather than expanding it into the grander, comprehensive quadruple form that many scholars believe Bach would have done – a dazzling display of counterpoint. It is a respectable completion, if not very memorable, and the triplet figure introduced is not very characteristic, difficult to recognise the claim of the press release that Ishizaka’s “approach is based on a … conviction that Bach would have concluded with something powerful, dramatic, expressive and architecturally true to the existing musical structures.”
In one sense, what might be described as her boldly austere performance is true to the serious, abstract nature of the work. But the whole point of realising the music in practice is to make stimulating to the mind. Whereas her Goldberg Variations subtly and sensitively draws out their wonderful variety, this rendition of the Art of Fugue remains too dryly bound up with the score and execution of the notes to register as a fully vital embodiment of Bach’s final masterpiece.