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Jed Distler
Gramophone, January 2010

…Vartolo’s brisk, forthright performance of the amazing canon in augmentation and contrary motion is a refreshing change from the laborious, impossibly slow renditions a few too many harpsichordists favour these days…his playing is consistently true to his convictions, while the attractive colours and registrations he obtains from his Taskin model harpsichord are excellently reproduced by Naxos’s engineers.

Ilya Oblomov
Fanfare, November 2009

Some recordings deserve high praise, some deserve faint praise, and some earn their fair share of ridicule. Then there is the category of those that earn your respect over time, if you have the stamina to hang in. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080, usually considered an intellectually “dry” work, as played on the harpsichord by Sergio Vartolo (with Maddalena Vartolo on the final two pieces for two harpsichords), won me over after a struggle. The first time through, I experienced a rash of negative judgments: the tempo was too slow, the beat was too regular, the dynamic range was too narrow (only from p to f , while the piano could cover from ppp to fff ), the soloist is an academic (and you know how they are), and there was no exhilaration by acceleration. Everything was too risk free, too free of passion. I was under the spell of the modern piano readings of Bach’s music. But after putting these discs aside for about a week, I asked myself: “If the disc is all that, why did Naxos offer it?” I concluded that I must not have been listening with both frontal lobes of my brain operating. Or, maybe the first time through I’d put too much Kirsch in the fondue for lunch, and it affected my judgment. In any event, I didn’t “get it.”

So I listened to all 102:13 of it, again. This time I realized what I’d forgotten in my prejudice. Of course, the harpsichord had a limited dynamic range with each string being plucked by a leather plectrum under uniform pressure each time its keyboard note was struck (no matter how heartily or delicately). That is one of the limiting factors of its design, which became an incentive in the development of the forte piano. As for the tempo and the rhythm, I realized these were likely a secondary concern to Bach, a champion of well-tempered tuning, in these contrapuntal but equally harmonic exercises. The metronome had not yet been developed, so there couldn’t have been exact instructions from the composer as would become the later practice. There were likely “conventions,” probably issued verbally on the signature score, as to the approximate tempo the composer recommended for each section.

In my bifurcated Oblomovian mind, I decided to concede the tempo to the performer, especially as Vartolo is a highly prolific recording artist, a regular medal winner, as well as a professor at the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna, where, in 1770, a new member—W.A. Mozart—was installed. I reasoned if there were existing instructions from Bach, or conventions that were observed concerning tempo, rubato, syncopation, etc., Vartolo (as scholar) would know them. And this time I enjoyed my listening much more. But I still wasn’t sold.

During my third trip through The Art of Fugue with Vartolo, I got so into the music I could forget about dynamic range and tempo and appreciate the gorgeous sound of the harpsichord, the skill of the Naxos recording engineers, as well as the spellbinding quality of Vartolo’s playing. I’ve taken to putting it in my CD player first thing in the morning, and (setting it on automatic repeat) letting it play all day while I am at my computer. The presentation of the music is so inevitable, the playing and recording so clean, that I’ve come to hear the clarity of the argument for original instruments, something I had thought too doctrinaire. Certainly, this music—when played on a modern piano, even by soloists who loved Bach (like Glenn Gould)—takes on a quite different mode of presentation. But I can hear the case for equally expert playing on the harpsichord.

In conclusion, I’m not too proud to climb down off my high horse and recommend this two-CD set. It has won me over by overcoming my knee-jerk reactions. If you are interested in Bach, or the fugue, or the harpsichord, or the body of work known as The Art of Fugue, I recommend this recording with high praise. Both the playing and the recording are damn fine. The lesson I’ve learned here, and hope to share with you is that in judging music, it seems best to admit your prejudices to yourself. If you can keep aware of your own preferences, education, music you exclude on specious grounds, you might discover the value of music that is new to you. As I have. Music loving ought to be inclusive. It depends on how you do it. I recommend that you Zen yourself out with Vartolo’s The Art of Fugueduring a rainy weekend. You could be pleasantly surprised! And for you harpsichord players out there, you already knew all this. But isn’t it cool to see it in print?

Rob Haskins
American Record Guide, November 2009

Vartolo’s tempos on this new release vary widely, even in a single movement, and sometimes he favors rather sudden shifts to slower tempos. But I don’t mind it at all: it helps to underscore structural moments in the fugues or momentarily disentangles a bramble of proximate or crossing contrapuntal lines. And it gives this performance of Bach’s late composition considerably more personality than I’m used to hearing…I hear more passion and vitality in Vartolo. He takes care to give Contrapunctus 8 and the second pair of mirror fugues the little galant-style lilt they need, and I enjoy the similar rhythmic alterations he and Maddalena Vartolo apply to Bach’s own arrangements of those mirror fugues for two harpsichords…all in all, this is a splendid if sometimes quirky performance of The Art of Fugue, recorded in excellent sound and at a very affordable price.

James Leonard, August 2009

Harpsichordist Sergio Vartolo’s magisterial performance of Bach’s monumental Die Kunst der Fuge is an intellectual and virtuoso tour de force—intellectual because of the rigor of the counterpoint, and virtuoso because of the tremendous keyboard skill it takes to articulate Bach’s music lucidly. Despite their immense difficulties, Vartolo consistently delivers readings of the twenty-two pieces of Die Kunst der Fuge that elucidate their counterpoint with absolute clarity and inexorable logic…Naxos’ digital sound is cool and open.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, July 2009

‘It is here performed, as the composer apparently intended, on the harpsichord, by Sergio Vartolo, who uses his own recently-published facsimile edition of the autograph score, and of the engraved first edition’. That is the headline to the disc’s back insert and sets the scene for this new recording. I am old and wise enough not to become involved in a discussion on the rights and wrongs of performing Bach, nor am I about to comment on the learned notes that come with the disc and seek to justify the veracity of the performing version. I am, however, foolish enough to say that I thoroughly enjoy the tangy quality of the French-sounding reproduction harpsichord, not that it is really right for Bach, but simply because I adore French harpsichords. Of course much of this conjecture would never have existed had Bach lived long enough to see the work through to its engraving. What Vartalo offers are the complete nineteen sections that appear under the heading of BWV 1080 and represents more than normally recorded. He also states that he does not intend a reading that simply recreates the manuscript, but wishes to add his own interpretation. Having said that he does remain very faithful to the style we have come to regard as period correctness and authenticity. His playing is also a model of clarity in unhurried tempos, the strands of the fugue always lucid and easy to follow, and where he does add some distinctive changes of pulse, it creates a more coherent shape to the music. I also welcome the sizeable gap left in the recording between each Contrapunctus. The discs include the two fugues (BWV1080/18.1 & 2) for two harpsichords, in which he is joined by Maddalena Vartolo. So would this all add up to my first choice? Certainly if I was looking for every note of BWV 1080, and it equally offers a very viable alternative to Davitt Moroney’s slightly less ‘complete’ harpsichord version that has previously been regarded as the benchmark recording. The sound engineer has gone in very close and accentuates the instrument’s pungency.

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