Sometimes, listening to versions of Bach on piano – Art of Fugue in particular – can be a bit like Theseus and his ball of string. Depending on how it’s played it can either be a thing of distraction and almost alarm as you wind in and out of its magic, or it becomes calming in its hypnotic tumbling. Either way, it’s a labyrinth.
I don’t mean to demean Bach therefore by saying that some renditions have a kind of raucous calamity about them, but others sit well in the background, to listen to in peace, or to do something else by, and occasionally to think to yourself: this music is utterly beautiful.
There is a kind of wild mathematical complexity, versus an unravelling of the same. Sort of like how you fancy your guitar solos, maybe. If you can’t play, or read a note, like me, this is how it feels.
So I don’t mean to demean Joanna MacGregor at all either by saying her version here is in the latter category. I mean it as a very big compliment. I do like the slightly crazy versions, but I will always love when the Art of Fugue is played like this – delicate at times, but then very deliberate, with a kind of simultaneous cascading fixation that makes me think of someone like John Coltrane. When it has to step up and be very definite it does, and it will break your reverie, but maybe you needed it.
I remember her on an episode of The Great Composers – such an influential programme, that – she’s sitting at a harpsichord, playing Bach, describing the last fugue, unfinished at his death, and basically being the star of the show as she describes “this devastating moment where the music just cuts off”, and then playing it just so. From that moment on, I found this music completely spellbinding.
I very much like this superb record, and in the very best possible way, to have it playing away behind me as I work, but like the intricacies of the music itself, I’m always drawn back in to the Minotaur’s den from time to time, before making it out into the light again. It can never be background music properly – it has too much of a kind of supernatural draw. I must explore, you think.
Years and years ago, I used to listen to Joanna MacGregor’s Scarlatti Keyboard Sonatas to the point where my neighbours probably went insane, so it’s good to be back to listening to her so intently again. I will pop round to my new neighbours with a ball of string just as soon as I’m done here.
Skip to 2.42 for Joanna MacGregor …