Virtuosic Fugue

Virtuosic Fugue

Prelude & Fugues from the 18th – 20th centuries

Bryan Wallick piano

Johann Sebastian Bach composer
Felix Mendelssohn composer
Dmitri Shostakovich composer
Marc-André Hamelin composer
Ludwig van Beethoven composer

Release Date: July 28, 2023
Catalog #: NV6541
Format: Digital
Solo Instrumental

Good pianists are a dime a dozen, great pianists are one in a million. American virtuoso Bryan Wallick proves that he firmly belongs to the latter category on VIRTUOSIC FUGUE, a dazzling curation of music’s strictest and most challenging form, executed with a buttery, singing tone and ravishing technical bravura.

These fugues by J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Shostakovich challenge the pianist with the age-old dilemma of the form by performing them with a mesmerizingly light, precise touch, sparingly adding accent pedaling in highly strategic places. The result isn’t just a masterclass in expressive virtuosity; it’s also a mentally restorative, profoundly enjoyable listening experience.


Hear the full album on YouTube

Track Listing & Credits

# Title Composer Performer
01 Toccata and Fugue in D Major BWV 912 Johann Sebastian Bach Bryan Wallick, piano 10:33
02 Prelude and Fugue in E minor Op. 35 No. 1 Felix Mendelssohn Bryan Wallick, piano 8:34
03 Prelude and Fugue in D minor Op. 87 No. 24 Dmitri Shostakovich Bryan Wallick, piano 11:11
04 Prelude and Fugue in A-flat minor (from 12 Études in all the minor keys, No. 12) Marc-André Hamelin Bryan Wallick, piano 6:13
05 Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”: I. Allegro Ludwig van Beethoven Bryan Wallick, piano 10:46
06 Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”: II. Scherzo: Assai vivace Ludwig van Beethoven Bryan Wallick, piano 2:51
07 Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”: III. Adagio sostenuto: Appassionato e con molto sentiment Ludwig van Beethoven Bryan Wallick, piano 15:38
08 Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major Op. 106 “Hammerklavier”: IV. Introduzione: Largo-Fuga: Allegro risoluto Ludwig van Beethoven Bryan Wallick, piano 12:15

Recorded December 14, 2022, February 1-2, 2023, at Organ Recital Hall, Colorado State University in Fort Collins CO
Session Producer Bryan Wallick
Session Engineer James Doser
Piano Technician Justin Holcomb
Cover photo Shayne Hopkins

Mastering Melanie Montgomery

Executive Producer Bob Lord

A&R Director Brandon MacNeil
A&R Chris Robinson

VP of Production Jan Košulič
Audio Director Lucas Paquette

VP, Design & Marketing Brett Picknell
Art Director Ryan Harrison
Design Edward A. Fleming
Publicity Aidan Curran

Artist Information

Bryan Wallick

Bryan Wallick


Bryan Wallick is gaining recognition as one of the great American virtuoso pianists of his generation. Gold medalist of the 1997 Vladimir Horowitz International Piano Competition in Kiev, he has performed throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa. Wallick made his New York recital debut in 1998 at Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall and made his Wigmore Hall recital debut in London in 2003. He has also performed at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall with the London Sinfonietta and at the St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church with the London Soloist’s Chamber Orchestra.


Historically, the English term fugue originates from the Latin fuga, which is a related term for fugere (“to flee”) and fugare (“to chase”). Many composers used the term from the middle ages through the 17th century to describe canonic and eventually imitative works for two or more voices. By the time J.S. Bach began finalizing fugal form in the early 18th century, fugues generally would have been composed using the following principles:

A fugue describes a very structured and imitative work that begins with a brief subject on one instrument or voice which is answered (or chased, fugare) by another voice, repeating the subject in the dominant key. These two voices will soon be accompanied by a third voice in the bass, which restates the subject in the original tonic key. Fourth and fifth voices (or more) can be added later in different capacities, but the musical interplay in a fugue usually revolves around three or four voices that continually repeat the opening statement with a variety of compositional variations.

Typical modifications which can be applied to opening fugal statements include inversion (playing the theme upside down), retrograde (playing the theme backward), retrograde-inversion (playing the theme upside down and backward), diminution (reducing the rhythmic values of the subject), and augmentation (increasing the rhythmic values). Counter-subjects or second subjects may be introduced and are designed to complement and contrast the opening subject. False entrances (incomplete statements) can be used in building musical tension and are often used throughout episodes, which are transitory sections where the composer can modulate and explore different keys. Stretto is a device often used near the conclusion of a fugue, where several voices present the fugue subjects in short succession, with all voices making their entrance before the previous statement has finished, building climatic tension to conclude the fugue.

Composers use all of these devices to showcase different expressions with which the subject could be infused. And while the fugue is perhaps the strictest form of composition, these devices were originally designed by composers so they could improvise on the opening subject. There should be an improvisatory freedom permeating throughout all of these structures and devices.

I intend my collection of works in VIRTUOSIC FUGUE to pay homage to the real “father” of the modern fugue, Johann Sebastian Bach. He is the overwhelming inspiration for all of the pieces on this disc, and my program notes are limited in scope, not to analyze the works themselves, but to mostly highlight the relationship each composer had with Bach and his music.

— Bryan Wallick

The first selection on this disc is the Bach Toccata in D major, BWV 912. The seven Toccatas of Bach (BWV 910-916) are wonderfully condensed, youthful works which show many variations of typical Baroque writing within a shorter piece, as compared with the larger suites and partitas. The title Toccata comes from the Italian verb toccare, to touch, and the pieces are designed to show a variety of “touches” which demonstrated the full expressive and virtuosic capabilities of the harpsichord. In spirit, they were written-out improvisations in which Bach connected a few contrasting structural sections with recitative-like interludes. This Toccata has three main sections: a prelude, a slower meditative fugue, and a final gigue-like fugue which are connected by two recitativo sections, all which demonstrate the different expressive capabilities of Bach’s keyboard instruments. I chose this work to open the disc as it shows a youthful Bach writing two different types of fugues, and sets the stage for the contrasting prelude and fugues to follow.
Mendelssohn was arguably the most influential promoter of Bach’s music to the 19th century audience. He was the first composer to notably revive public performances of Bach’s music, programming the first performance (in nearly 100 years) of the St. Matthew Passion at Bach’s Thomaskirche of Leipzig in 1829. Bach’s music was studied and possibly performed after his death in very small venues by composers of the late 18th and 19th centuries, but this momentous occasion returned Bach’s music to the public realm where it continued to inspire audiences and composers thereafter.

Mendelssohn’s Prelude and Fugue in e minor Op. 35, the most popular of his pieces in this genre, was published a few years after this Bach revival of 1829, and the collections of works (Op. 35 and Op. 37) illustrate Mendelssohn’s affinity and respect for Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier. The Prelude is virtuosic in nature, using a typical 19th century convention of “three-handed” piano playing, placing the melody in the middle register between the hands, using arpeggiated flourishes above and below to create the triple hand effect. Mendelssohn originally thought of these preludes as etudes, but then changed the titles before publication to highlight the reverence he had for Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The fugue opening was written in a very Bachian manner with a four-voice fugue which recalls typical Baroque polyphony and harmony, but then expands into a 19th century display of virtuosic fugal writing, concluding with a triumphant chorale, also in the style of Bach.

Shostakovich was the first composer to use Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier as an inspiration to write his own entire set of 24 Prelude and Fugues, Op. 87. Shostakovich was a jury member of the first International Bach Piano Competition in Leipzig (1950) where he heard Tatiana Nikolayeva’s sensational performance of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. He had recently been reprimanded by the Soviet government for following too many western tendencies of formality and dissonance with his music. He was fired from his positions in Moscow and Leningrad, his music was banned from public performance, and thus he embarked on a project to keep his compositional skills in shape, writing a “daily” prelude and fugue which kept his craft stimulated and alive during this politically tumultuous time. The Prelude and Fugue in d minor is the last of the 24 Prelude and Fugues Op. 87, and captures many of these dark, reflective, frustrated and introspective emotions Shostakovich was consumed with during this difficult period of his career. This formal medium of prelude and fugue, as explored by Bach 200 years prior, gave Shostakovich a safe platform to explore the music he wanted to write without influence or manipulation from the Soviet government. One can hear vividly the sadness, frustration, and eventual defiance Shostakovich expresses with this final work of Op. 87.
Beethoven’s relationship with Bach’s music is quite well-known and documented. He grew up playing the Well-Tempered Clavier and made many glowing compliments about its value and influence on his own composing and performing throughout his life. Beethoven began to use fugues in the later part of his career, and we find them placed in many genres: solo piano, cello and piano, string quartet, and symphony. Most of his significant final works include some type of fugue, and although he used many conventions of Bachian fugues, he also expanded the form and romanticized its possibilities.

The writing throughout the first movement is quite polyphonic and built on very small harmonic and rhythmic structures revolving around the interval of the third, which permeates the entire movement. In the development section he gives us a small fugato based on the opening phrase, foreshadowing the great fugue to follow in the final movement. This sonata is also unique in that it is the only work in which Beethoven gave specific metronome marks, all of which are incredibly fast and the first movement marking is virtually unplayable. However, if we take these directions as inspirational markings instead of literal markings, we can understand a specific spirit of the work which should be infused with a dynamic energy which is missing in some of the more “careful” recordings (regarding tempo) of the earlier 20th century.

The second movement, also based entirely around the intervallic third, is a brief respite from the colossal weight of the two surrounding movements, and a foreboding recall of his Eroica theme finds its way into this short movement as well, perhaps signaling the same inspirational qualities Beethoven channeled as he wrote that enormous work.

The third movement is the longest and most tragic movement Beethoven ever composed, perhaps for any medium, and a great portion of the emotional weight of this exploratory sonata rests in this movement marked Adagio sostenuto: Appassionato e con molto sentiment.

The finale is Beethoven’s ultimate homage to Bach as in essence, it is a prelude and fugue. The introduction is a written-out improvisation in a style called “preluding,” a type of transitional improvising which composers would perform to connect pieces on concerts. There are written records of Beethoven sketching out part of the Well-Tempered Clavier during this time to study fugal writing more carefully, and many of the sonorities and musical impressions Beethoven incorporates express a reminiscence of some specific preludes in the Well-Tempered Clavier. As he meanders through the keys (again in thirds) toward the fugue, he creates some space and emotional distance between the weightiness of the tragic third and triumphant fourth movements. His title for the fourth movement’s fugue states that it is a “fugue in three voices, but with some license.” Beethoven uses a very complicated subject, which he then transforms using most of all of the baroque fugal conventions of inversion, retrograde, retrograde inversion, diminution, augmentation, and stretto. The writing is incredibly dense, and the performer and listener often find difficulty in the experience. The performer’s responsibility to technically control the demanding passages while remembering the myriads of notes is matched in difficulty with the listener’s attempt to understand the structure of the fugue in relation to everything which has been conveyed during the preceding intense movements. Beethoven biographer Jan Swafford makes some final comments on this work stating, “The outer movements of the Hammerklavier are excessive beyond ease and beyond pleasure, sometimes nearly beyond human, though they enfold moments of wonderful beauty. The superhuman and the intimately human are both part of the Hammerklavier.”