On record – Tatyana Nikolayeva plays Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge (First Hand)

Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) BWV1080 (c1740-50)

Tatyana Nikolayeva (piano)

First Hand Records FHR95 [87’58”]

Producer/Engineer Pekka Purhonen

Live recording, 26 April 1993 at Sibelius Academy, Helsinki

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

First Hand Records follows its earlier release of Tatyana Nikolayeva (Athens 1989, FHR46) with this performance of The Art of Fugue, recorded in Helsinki just seven months before her death and capturing her singular perspective on Bach’s unfinished swansong to potent effect.

What’s the music like?

Fanciful notions of Bach labouring over this compendious sequence literally on his deathbed may have long been put to rest, but The Art of Fugue remains the last in a succession of ‘late’ works – following on from the Goldberg Variations and The Musical Offering – in which the ageing composer sought to distil a lifetime’s accrued knowledge into music of rigorous, some would say arcane abstraction. Certainly, what Bach himself seems initially to have envisaged as a technical manual for the perfecting of fugal technique duly became a treatise as has been likened to Cicero’s codifying of Latin – beyond which, no further evolution seemed possible. Even the means of realization has remained conjectural, but a keyboard instrument arguably ‘translates’ the content of these increasingly intricate constructions with the greatest clarity.

Uncertainty also surrounds the exact order of the individual components: specifically whether the four canons should be placed immediately prior to the final fugue, favoured by C.P.E. Bach in the first published edition, or interspersed between those fugues at regular intervals so as to demarcate actual groupings – as indicated by surviving autograph sources and followed with increasing frequency in recital. Nikolayeva rightly opts for this latter premise, and while one might have preferred for the Canon alla decima to have been situated after Contrapunctus 13 (itself rendered prior to Contrapunctus 12), the formal focus and cumulative expressive intensity of her performance cannot be gainsaid. Bach clearly intended a methodical increase of complexity to be perceptible ‘in real time’, and this is exactly what Nikolayeva conveys.

As to Contrapunctus 14, that likely quadruple fugue left unfinished by Bach at his death and which has been completed by numerous composers and musicologists (notably Donald Tovey from among the latter), Nikolayeva plays this as it appears in Bach’s manuscript – breaking off at bar 239 as though any continuation might be sensed though not realized. It is a credit to her sustained conviction that the audience, which has stayed with her for almost one-and-a-half hours, is momentarily caught unawares by the sudden silence which ensues – thereafter responding enthusiastically. Credit, moreover, to FHR in utilizing the extended duration that has long been feasible on CD and so presenting this account as the uninterrupted span it was experienced as at the time. Few musical works need to be heard thus, but this is one of them.

Does it all work?

Yes, despite a smattering of memory lapses (as detailed by Jonathan Summers in his booklet note) and rather dry sound whose perspective nonetheless renders Nikolayeva’s pianism with commendable naturalness. Those wanting her interpretation of the work need look no further.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. David Murphy has done an excellent job in opening out the original recording without detriment to the rapport between pianist and audience during what was a memorable occasion. Hopefully, there may be other such Nikolayeva performances still to be found in the archive.



You can discover more about this release at the First Hand Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.

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