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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Naxos harpsichord version from Sébastien Guillot is in every way attractive. His instrument, by Jonte Knüf of Helsinki (after German models), is most pleasingly recorded and Guillot presents Bach’s masterly survey simply but not didactically: the result is very satisfying. Moreover the Naxos documentation by Pierre Bachmann and Keith Anderson is excellent. Why pay more?

American Record Guide, October 2006

Guillot, who studied with Huguette Dreyfuss and Christophe Rousset, performs the earlier version of Bach's contrapuntal tour de force­11 fugues, 2 canons, both sets of mirror fugues (but Guillot inexplicably omits one of the second pair), and-for good measure-the unfin­ished fugue. (In most cases, the fugues differ in detail from Bach's final revision, and the ordering also varies from the published order of 1751.) He plays a harpsichord by J onte Kuntif after German models (no information on the tuning); it sounds beautiful and it's bril­liantly recorded. His performance style is opti­mal for this music: careful articulation, just the right amount of emphasis in certain phrases, occasional and well-placed arpeggiations. In Fugue 3 (Contrapunctus 2 in the published Art of Fugue) the dotted rhythms have just the right amount of swing to demonstrate Guillot's wonderful Gallic sensibility. Naturally the French-style Fugue 7 (Contrapunctus 6) has just the right spirit as well. The gentle Fugue 6 (Contrapunctus 10 without the first 22 mea­sures) has beautifully shaped phrases and just the right amount of added ornamentation.

At mid-price this recording is ideal. It com­pares well with the releases by Kenneth Gilbert on OG Archiv (Jan/Feb 1991) and Robert Hill on Music & Arts (July/Aug 1995). I probably like Hill's recording best of all for his virtuosity: he takes faster tempos for Fugue 7 and Fugue 5 (Contrapunctus 9) but plays them with such control and nuance that it's sometimes hard to realize exactly how difficult the tempos would be for anyone else. M&A's sound is close-up, a little harsh, but acceptable. Gilbert, as you might expect, takes grander tempos and plays a superior instrument. His performance of Fugue 1 (Contrapunctus 1) is my favorite ofthe three releases, and his sensitive approach to the 'Canon in Hypodiatessaron' (Canon per Augmentationem in Contrario Motu) outclass­es Hill and Guillot as well. Of course, the sound is beautiful too. Alas, both Hill's and Gilbert's recordings are deleted, at least in this country; but listeners who own only Guillot's release won't be too disappointed.

Jed Distler, July 2006

For his recording of Bach's The Art of Fugue, harpsichordist Sébastien Guillot includes the composer's early autograph versions. Although Bach's more familiar revisions generally were for the better, his first thoughts make for fascinating comparison. Contrapunctus 1's first version contains alternate note readings and lacks the gorgeous coda Bach added as an inspired afterthought. If the piece often referred to as Contrapunctus 10 sounds as if it starts mid-stream, so to speak, that's because we're used to the 22 sublime bars Bach subsequently tacked on to the beginning. The early version of the canon in augmentation and inversion is fascinatingly florid, but without the revision's extraordinary chromatic tension and melodic humor that Guillot brilliantly conveys. Other differences involve ornamental more than compositional refinements.

In an era where a few too many harpsichordists embrace these pieces with fussy agogics, crawling tempos, and a reverential halo, Guillot's fleet, uncluttered, and enlivening interpretations are positively refreshing. Ornaments and cadenzas are infused with improvisatory joy, while Guillot's rolled chords contain more gestural and expressive variety than we often hear. Should you prefer more repose and austerity (and some listeners undoubtedly will), I'd stick with Robert Hill, Gustav Leonhardt, and Davitt Moroney. But if Guillot's extroversion entices, then by all means supplement your collection with this inexpensive, beautifully engineered release.

Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, July 2006

This is a new and worthy recording of Bach's late masterpiece, his unfinished riff on the very notion of counterpoint.

The Art of Fugue is, quite simply, an awesome display of fugal prowess. It is not just a collection of fugues. It is a boundary testing concoction of simple fugues, double fugues, triple fugues, stretto fugues, reflected fugues and, last of all, the great unfinished quadruple fugue.

In many ways, The Art of Fugue remains an enigma. What is the correct performing order for these pieces? Should the fugues be played in the order in which they appear in Bach's manuscript, or should the order in the original printed version prevail? Presumably the latter reflects Bach's own ordering of the pieces as he prepared them for publication. We cannot be sure. We do not even know what instrument Bach intended these pieces for. The organ? Bach was certainly a master of the king of instruments and these fugues sound great with big sonorities behind them. There have also been successful performances by orchestra, string quartet and even brass quintet. I made my first acquaintance with The Art of Fugue through the 1988 recording by Canadian Brass and to this day their rendition remains my favourite.

Most likely Bach had keyboard instruments in mind, and piano and harpsichord recordings certainly dominate the catalogue. There are precious few budget priced recordings, though.

This one proves a decent introduction, but not a first choice. Guillot's approach is respectful but unsmiling. This, combined with his firm touch and the bright but hard-edged tone of the replica harpsichord, can make his playing sound like a relentless rush of counterpoint at times. That said, he delineates voices clearly and gives each fugue a firm pulse. Guillot does allow himself a little freedom of tempo and a stately rall at the end of each fugue. This usually works quite well, but not always: the last note of fugue no. 6 (Contrapuncti 10 and 14), for example, is hit just after the previous chord has faded, making it sound like an afterthought rather than a resolution.

The liner notes, by Pierre Bachmann, are full of rhetorical questions and are not particularly helpful to beginner or collector. After a rush of questions that ask in metaphysical language the same questions I have posed above, Bachmann asks: “Why assign numbers to the soul's utterances? Why frame the unseen?”. Why, indeed? Perhaps it sounds more profound in the original French. No complaints about the engineering, though – the recorded sound here is vivid and full.

Overall, then, this is a decent, affordable and well-played introduction to The Art of Fugue. Those with other keyboard versions in their collection need hardly rush into the stores to buy this one, but it will suit anyone coming to this piece for the first time, or anyone wanting a harpsichord version to compare to their preferred arrangements of this mesmerising work.

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