RECORDS / Flights of fugal fancy: Stephen Johnson and Edward Seckerson work out with Bach and relax with Howard Hanson

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The Independent Culture
BACH: The Art of Fugue. Two Ricercari. Four Duettos

Tatiana Nikolayeva (piano)

(Hyperion CDA 66631/2)

WAS The Art of Fugue meant to be performed? Or is it really a magnificent series of compositional exercises? It cannot be accidental that the whole of this collection of super-ingenious fugues and canons falls quite comfortably under two hands; and while the craft is apparent from the score, there are other qualities - rarefied fantasy, elegant but intense expression - that need a performer to bring them to life.

So does Tatiana Nikolayeva reach the heart of these astonishing last thoughts? The point where I began to feel less than delighted with her performance was almost at the end - at the start of the concluding Contrapunctus 14, to be exact. Up till then, dismissing small reservations was easy. Never mind the odd bout of heavy accentuation, or the way her highlighting of fugue subjects sometimes put other important details in the shadow; the shaping and shading are done with such skill and feeling, and with such respect for Bach's larger designs that - as with her marvellous Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues - the ear seems to be drawn in deeper the longer one listens. But the portentous slow tempo and heavy, Busoni-ish octave bass-doubling at the beginning of the unfinished Contrapunctus 14 came as a shock - the last thing I expected from Nikolayeva was drawing-room religiosity. I still recommend this set, strongly - but be prepared. SJ

'TOO much counterpoint - and what is worse, Protestant counterpoint.' Listen to The Art of Fugue in a single 90-minute sitting and you might begin to feel that Sir Thomas Beecham had a point. My advice to the uninitiated is this: embark upon these great fugal adventures a few steps at a time. To some extent, this is performers' music. And yet, beyond the contrapuntal wizardry, there is infinite variety of expression, a world of invention with the power to stir and move. In the outgoing Contrapunctus 8 the imagination seems quite literally to brim over; on the other hand, what could be plainer or more inward-looking than the quiet certainty of the unfinished Contrapunctus 14? Johann Sebastian's powerful presence looms large here (not least in the shape of his B-A-C-H monogram), and when he finally, abruptly lays down his pen, the sudden silence is oddly conclusive. But then, the remarkable Tatiana Nikolayeva plays throughout these discs with such acute awareness of subtext that one is always conscious of the elusive, driving spirit behind the music. She is an astonishingly spry, resourceful octogenarian who uncovers Bach's revelations as if they were her own. ES

HANSON: Symphony No 4,

'Requiem'. Lament for Beowulf. Suite from Merry Mount. Serenade. Pastorale

Seattle Symphony Orchestra and Chorale / Gerard Schwarz

(Delos DE 3105)

YOU may think you have never heard a note of Howard Hanson, but believe me you will know the tune from the Second Symphony. Remember the end-titles of the film Alien? That symphony, the 'Romantic' (and how), is as good a place as any to start, but try this for a fully rounded portrait of 'the American Sibelius'. Even the earlier pieces think big and act confidently, though the ancient text of Lament for Beowulf inspires more accomplishment from Hanson's craggy orchestral backdrops than from his somewhat old-hat choral invocations. The suite from his opera Merry Mount is kind of old-hat, too: entertaining, but hardly redolent of steamy goings-on in puritan New England. No doubts, though, about the Pulitzer Prize- winning Fourth Symphony, a Requiem without words for his father. It's the way Hanson's simple tunes are forever aspiring to something greater that ultimately leads the mind and heart on. In one memorable page of the Largo ('Requiescat'), the humblest of laments suddenly modulates into a gloriously tender effusion, rich in harmonic suspensions. If that doesn't make a Hanson convert of you, nothing will. ES

NOT to be listened to after Bach - nor indeed after Sibelius. Accepted, Howard Hanson's brand of Nordic-epic Romanticism is distinctive, deeply felt and completely unself-conscious. There is something admirable and moving about the way he stuck to his own ideals in the face of the 'bitter type of modern musical realism' - a revealing remark.

But I wish something of that strength of purpose were apparent in the music. Frequently tender phrases or warm harmonies touch me, but I am rarely convinced by what Hanson does with them. That is less important in atmospheric miniatures such as the Serenade or the Pastorale, but in the symphony the thread is never quite taut enough. The stern opening of Lament for Beowulf promises something less soft-centred. How succesful the rest of the piece is, I am not yet sure, but I will go back to that far more eagerly than to the Merry Mount Suite, with its giant marshmallow 'Love Duet' - and if there were a musical equivalent of Jane Fonda's Workout, 'Maypole Dances' could have done with it. SJ