The story of Bach’s pen slipping from his lifeless fingers while composing The Art of Fugue - which ends in mid-bar, notes hanging in the air - may be apocryphal, but this work will always be one of music’s sacred mysteries.
It is thought he began it at a time when his overriding interest lay in the technicalities of counterpoint – how to achieve ‘natural’ polyphony while obeying mechanical rules - and that he went back to it when musical dramaturgy was uppermost in his mind. His son Carl Philipp Emanuel tried to drum up interest in it by pointing out that his father had encoded his name in the unfinished final fugue, but the sheet music didn’t sell and he had to dispose of the printer’s plates as scrap metal. Since then the work has exerted ever-increasing fascination – the Nazis flourished it as being iconically German – and Bach’s keyboard scoring has been trumped by scorings for a wide variety of instruments including saxophones.
If the most successful transpositions have been for string quartet, that’s for two good reasons: these instruments bring out the voices in high relief, and their combined sound can generate the choral effects which Bach was often implicitly striving for. And to hear the Budapest-based Keller Quartet play this work in the perfect acoustic of Kings Place was an unforgettable experience. Any lingering keyboard thoughts were banished in the first few bars by the muscular dissonances and by the sheer glow of their sound, and as each successive fugue added its variation – inverted, back to front, inside out - the structure attained magnificence. The timbre was vibrato-free, the tempi were vivid and varied, and though the sound of Judit Szabo’s cello sometimes stood out as a particular delight, the synergy was ideal. One had the sense, as the four bows finally froze in mid-air, of having assisted at a performance for the gods. Anyone interested can catch this ensemble (with two cast-changes) playing the same work twenty years ago for ECM records, and with the same poise.
In the following Bach Unwrapped concert, Charles Owen delivered the third, fifth, and sixth Partitas in his own unique style: pellucid articulation, a bright and shining sound, absolutely no pedal, and an exuberant delight in these colourful works’ Houdini-like technical challenges. I could have done with more tonal contrast in the Sarabandes but, as Bach pianism goes, this was as exciting as it gets.
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