You have to wonder how happy the executives were at Deutsche Grammophon when their new star-signing, pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, plumped for Bach's elusive Art of Fugue for the first recording of his exclusive contract with the label. One can imagine from a pianist renowned for his intelligence, as well as formidable technique, this was unlikely to have been a choice of repertoire that was taken lightly.
Aimard speaks of always having been 'determined to explore Bach's music more intensively at some point in my life, and The Art of Fugue is a composition that has haunted me for a long time'. It is typical for this pianist, never a conventional performer, to have thrown himself into the murky deep-end of Bach's work, by-passing the standard keyboard repertory in favour of a work whose intended instrumentation scholars still debate. In so doing he joins a select company including such giants of the piano as Glenn Gould, Tatiana Nikolayeva and Grigory Sokolov. I suppose the question should be whether or not one can agree with the marketing blurb accompanying the release – 'Here truly is an Art of Fugue for our time – one that demands to be heard'.
Inevitably that's putting it a bit strongly. Listening to the concentration and sheer pianistic skill on show on this new recording, though, this definitely muscles its way in as an important addition to the catalogue. Immediately any fears we might have about Aimard mastering the notes and delineating the counterpoint clearly and cleanly are allayed. His technique is such that he's able to articulate clearly the voices within the most complex textures, dotted-rhythms are always tight and passage-work is purposeful and strong.
Although he never sounds out of his depth technically, the sheer difficulty of his task results in a thrilling sense of struggle in some of the denser movements. Listen, for example to the doggedness of his performance of Contrapunctus II, or in Contrapunctus VI where it sounds as though he's squeezing all he can out of the instrument. In the accompanying interview he says that 'properly regulated, the modern piano of our day… is an excellent instrument for The Art of Fugue', when pressed as to whether actual adjustments have been made to the instrument he uses, Aimard replies enigmatically: 'alchemical ones'. Whatever he means by this, the piano doesn't sound like an instrument in top condition, with a touch of twang under pressure. And by the nature of the work and Aimard's sometimes titanic approach, it is often pushed to its limits. As the textures thicken and as voices need to be brought out above others and long note values made to sound, there can be some violence in Aimard's touch. For me, though, this is just part and parcel of playing this work on the piano – not something that any of Aimard's illustrious predecessors mentioned earlier would have tried to avoid in the name of pianistic glamour.
Although there's very limited use of pedal, I did enjoy the unapologetic way that Aimard uses the options open to him on the piano. He creates a whole new sound world for Contrapunctus III – it's difficult to tell if it's through subtle use of the pedal or simply the employment of extra smooth articulation – as he does for the rectus and inversus versions of Contrapunctus XII. His performance of Contrapunctus IX, taken at something of a lick, is jaw-droppingly impressive.
Aimard's performances of the shorter Contrapuncti are thoroughly convincing, then, both in terms of technique and musicality. A recording of this work, however, stands or falls by the three triple fugues – Contrapuncti VIII, XI and the incomplete XIV - as well as the Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu. In Aimard's hands, these long and immensely complicated movements have an astonishing cumulative power, made all the more intense by the feeling of the music almost wanting to tear itself free from the fetters imposed by its performance by just ten fingers on a piano (in this context, one can forgive the occasional moment where the pianist speeds up slightly). In these longer movements, Aimard captures the sense of Bach's writing as an intellectual force of nature so well that when in Contrapunctus XIV the music stops, the sensation is uncanny.
If the listener is left intellectually and emotionally moved, but with more questions than answers, that for me is the sign of a good performance of this endlessly fascinating work. Aimard's reading does just that.
By Hugo Shirley