Colin Tilney is one of the most frequently recorded harpsichordists of the digital era, and for good reason; his playing is solid yet sensitive, yielding to the pulse but authoritative in transmitting the letter of the music. His style is very congenial to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and he has recorded a substantial amount of it: continuo parts in the harpsichord and flute concerti, the keyboard toccatas, a justly famous recording of "The 48," and the English Suites. Semi-retired and living in Victoria, British Columbia, Tilney regularly appears with the Victoria Symphony as soloist in Bach's D minor Concerto in addition to serving as its regular harpsichordist. With Music and Arts' Fugue: Bach and his Forerunners, Tilney turns for the first time on recordings to Bach's valedictory masterpiece, The Art of Fugue, a work Tilney's one-time master Gustav Leonhardt has recorded no less than three times. However, this recording does so with a difference; Tilney elects to perform the work in part, omitting Contrapuncti 6, 7, 10, and 12-14, and interlacing the remainder with fugues drawn from composers known to have informed Bach's fugal approach: Louis Couperin, Frescobaldi, and Froberger. For those who might say, "what a rip-off! He doesn't do the whole thing," Tilney has some sound reasoning as to why one would parcel it out in such fashion. The Art of Fugue is a long, dense work that isn't very variable in its rhythm; Contrapuncti 12 and 13 both lie outside the reach of a single player and 14, of course, is unfinished, and any attempt to put a period at the end of that sentence is essentially an invasion on Bach's territory. So, by excluding some of the problem terrain, Tilney is able to open up some time to voices that impacted Bach's contrapuntal thinking, and the effect is quite striking. The unmeasured Louis Couperin Prelude in D minor might well pass through one's ears without seeming in the least out of place; one wouldn't be aware it wasn't Bach if it weren't for the name above the title. Not quite the same effect is achieved with Frescobaldi, whose approach is unmistakably different from Bach's; however, this interpretation of Frescobaldi's Capriccio la, sol, la, mi, re, do is not only a genuine highlight of this album, but may well be one of the finest single tracks Tilney has done in his entire, long career.
After arriving at the University of Victoria in 2002, Tilney had developed a special rapport with a mysterious 18th century Italian harpsichord whose maker is officially unknown, but believed to be a product of the Cristofori shop in Florence. Music and Arts' Christopher Butterfield picks up the delicate tone of this instrument -- since sold to another harpsichordist -- with absolute precision. While the recording is a little quiet -- true to the volume of the instrument itself -- one need only bring the volume up somewhat and the natural tone of it remains; its sound is quite powerful for a historic harpsichord. No matter how one may listen to Music and Arts' Fugue: Bach and his Forerunners, it will prove informative, relatively fast moving (which a regular recording of The Art of Fugue is not), and entertaining. Even if one already has a recording of The Art of Fugue, that is no reason to avoid this excellent release.