April 4, 1999
Music Meant to Be Worked At, Not Just Listened To
This review of Bach's "The Art of Fugue" (recorded by Phantasm) is reprinted by permission from The New York Times. Photo of Phantasm by Anthony Crickmay.
How do you listen to music that wasn't meant to be listened to? And how do you perform a work that wasn't meant to be performed?
The latest group to pose such questions forcibly is the viol consort Phantasm, in a commanding new recording of major portions of Bach's "Art of Fugue" (Simax PSC 1135; CD), some of which it will also perform on Saturday evening at Florence Gould Hall, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The questions arise because Bach never imagined that the work would be performed before an audience. He expected purchasers of the first edition (which came out in 1751, a year after his death) to take it home and play it for their ears only, and he wrote it accordingly.
" 'The Art of Fugue' was meant to appeal particularly to the ear," Laurence Dreyfus, a member of Phantasm, writes in a fascinating booklet essay. Yet there is no getting around the fact that Bach assumed that any hearer would be doing more than listening: namely, studying the score for instruction in the writing of fugues.
Bach, that is, was reckoning without listeners like us. His oversight need not, on the face of it, freeze us out of the work, since we constantly take music written for outdated purposes and transplant it to modern settings. But simply listening to "The Art of Fugue," as opposed to studying or playing it, is like watching a chess game without seeing the whole board. There is more going on than the listening brain can process.
Bach expected his audience to follow every move: the way he turns a theme upside down, speeds it up or slows it down, stretches it harmonically or combines it with itself and other themes. Even with careful listening, we miss some of these events. If we play the piece from the score, as Bach expected, we can follow every permutation easily enough.
Yet most Bach lovers need recordings or concerts if they are going to have access to "The Art of Fugue," and even score readers like to hear exceptional performances. So the question remains: how do you play private music in public?
In most music, a modern performer tries to project every musical event to the peanut gallery. And there is no reason in principle for performers today to try to emulate the playing of Bach's original performer-listeners; modern performers actually do have audiences, after all. But projecting to the gallery can upset the musical balance of these fugues, especially if they are played like a game of "Where's Waldo?" In that children's book series, the title character is hidden in astonishingly complex tableaux, but in a Bach fugue the main subject rarely needs help to gain a listener's attention. It is the other themes and developments that are in danger of being overshadowed.
To say that Phantasm (whose members, in addition to Mr. Dreyfus, are Wendy Gillespie, Jonathan Manson and Markku Luolajan-Mikkola) avoids the "Where's Waldo?" trap is like saying that Mikhail Baryshnikov avoids the clumsiness trap. The group's refined sense of contrapuntal balance is most evident in spots where Bach intentionally hides the first note of the main subject when it is played in the middle of a fugue. Many performers spotlight the otherwise hidden entry by accenting the first note to make it stand out from everything going on around it. (One hears some of these first-note emphases in another new recording of "The Art of Fugue," by the Keller Quartet; ECM New Series 1652; CD). Phantasm instead lets the entry emerge naturally out of the texture and surprise us once we recognize it.
Phantasm communicates more than just the subtleties of contrapuntal technique. As Mr. Dreyfus emphasizes, "The Art of Fugue" is full of emotion and also of "fascinating commentary" on the musical world in which Bach lived. Phantasm catches the allusions when Bach refers to various Baroque styles, like a sacred choral motet, a French overture or a gigue.
These allusions raise another quandary of transplanting old music to modern contexts: do the period references mean anything to the nonspecialist modern listener? Phantasm shows how they might. The allusions help define the music's emotional character.
A striking example involves the Sixth Contrapunctus. Many early-music gurus advise performers to deviate from the page by exaggerating the unevenness of the dotted rhythm of one of the themes, as a French musician of the time might have done. Many performers (including the Keller Quartet) follow that prescription.
But Phantasm plays the theme as written. Mr. Dreyfus argues that while Bach wrote that fugue's other version of the theme using the French approach to rhythm, he wrote the version in question using a more traditional learned style, thus creating an "intentionally wild metric conflict." Played as written, he says, the fugue is "an utterly mad evocation of a French overture which literally decomposes into sets of majestic gestures posturing at incompatible velocities."
Whether you accept that interpretation or not, it shows a rare degree of engagement with Bach's musical thinking. But then, Bach's tendency to compose against the grain of Baroque genres -- a tendency exemplified in Phantasm's reading of the Sixth Contrapunctus -- is a topic Mr. Dreyfus explores in his "Bach and the Patterns of Invention," one of the most important books to date on Bach's music.
Phantasm engages other aspects of Bachian style with equal subtlety. In its sense of which beats to lean on or to glide through, for example, it surpasses the Keller Quartet and many other performers.
But Phantasm's recording has at least one count against it: it fails to include the entire "Art of Fugue." It omits the pieces that require two keyboards (the canons and mirror fugues) because, Mr. Dreyfus writes, "they don't seem especially well suited to performance on viols and also -- dare one say it? -- because they do not seem to occupy the same artistic plane as the other works in the collection." In other words, perhaps, they strike Phantasm as "mind games," in a 60's expression that was actually used by Bach's contemporary Johann Mattheson to disparage the genre of the fugue. (The German was "Sinnenspiel." Mr. Dreyfus suggests that Bach was trying to disprove this viewpoint with "The Art of Fugue.")
To fill out the disk, Phantasm offers five fugues from "The Well-Tempered Clavier," as arranged for string quartet by Mozart, plus a fugue Mozart wrote for the medium himself. "The Well-Tempered Clavier" was a staple for Mozart, and also for Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. These composers developed a style of part-writing for string quartet that is informed by "the language of Bach's four-voiced fugues," Mr. Dreyfus argues, perhaps even more than by "the canonic repertory of string quartets themselves."
That accident of stylistic history may explain why Bach fugues sound so natural to us when played by quartets of strings, including Phantasm's violas da gamba. The explanation does not, in any event, lie in the practices of Bach's day. Bach assumed that "The Art of Fugue" would be played on a keyboard instrument. To let 10 fingers handle everything, he resorted to such tricks as abbreviating fugal entries and transposing part of a line to the "wrong" register.
The Phantasm CD should not be mistaken for a period-instrument recording, then, simply because the instruments are old. No one in mid-18th century Germany would have played these fugues with four gambas. Since the 1920's, of course, transcription has been the most common way of performing "The Art of Fugue"; what is notable about Phantasm's transcription is that the instruments are anachronistic in the opposite direction from the usual. We are used to hearing Bach transcribed for instruments developed after his era, like Steinways, saxophones or synthesizers. Phantasm transcribes him to a type of ensemble that was already outmoded when he was writing these fugues. What's next, critics might ask, Bach on crumhorns?
Still, the scoring works well. And why not? "The Art of Fugue" is transcribed more often than most of Bach's music not only because scholars once misunderstood the work -- written, as it is, on four staffs rather than on a keyboard system -- but also because transcription helps translate this music into our public listening paradigm. Transcription can add color and make each voice stand out more independently. It can let the players bring nuance to each line simultaneously. Surely, only the most puritanical harpsichordist would object.
But ever since the 1920's, some nonharpsichordists have objected, and their reasons are not necessarily puritanical. The pianist Charles Rosen, for example, argues that the "mingling of voices, so that one seems to run into the other and to become a decorative part of its line while still retaining some of its own individuality -- this half-blending, half-independence which is one of the central traits of the style of 'The Art of Fugue' -- is most easily heard on a keyboard instrument."
Perhaps; but a sense of the trait survives with Phantasm. A viol consort can sound almost like a single instrument; the effect has been compared to an organ or a harmonium. It can thus provide a compromise between the complete independence of lines in orchestral transcriptions and the half-blending of a keyboard performance. It may be a scoring that suits the needs of modern listeners, then, for all its apparent antiquarianism.
Still, whatever the advantages of the scoring, some moves in the chess game remain hidden when we listen. Those who want to penetrate the subtleties of "The Art of Fugue" would still do best to buy a score and study it, perhaps aided by one of the better commentaries (notably that of Donald Francis Tovey).
Since few Bach lovers have the time for that, the ideal gateway for modern listeners might be a context even more anachronistic than a concert or recording: a CD-ROM. Preferably, such a disk would not use a computer-generated performance but would supplement a recorded human performance. By letting listeners see the score and an on-screen commentary in sync with the music, it might bring attention to the arcane events Bach expected his player-audience to notice.
Yet even if we someday have that CD-ROM, Phantasm's recording, while incomplete and on historically "wrong" instruments, will not become outmoded. It conveys too much of the musical accomplishment, the mystery and the humanity of "The Art of Fugue." Like other outstanding Bach performers before it, Phantasm reminds us that anachronism can have its uses.
Bernard D. Sherman is the author of "Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers"
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