Fretwork: Bach's The Art of Fugue at Wigmore Hall
Disclaimer: I already loved Fretwork vision of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. Several years ago I got this very cheap CD with the Harmonia Mundi catalogue:
and felt in love with it.
Nowadays is mostly agreed that Bach did The Art of Fugue as a intellectual exercise for composers/music students. It was intended as a study work not as a concert work. So the question “in which instrument(s) should it be played?” has only a direct answer: in whichever you can play. And considering that there are four lines that pretty much limit the answer to harpsichord or organ. Now, the question: “in which instrument(s) could it be performed so non-musicians can listen to it and enjoy its magnificence?” has an easy answer… whichever you want. Performing it for an audience using harpsichord is not a more valid approach than playing it with a string quartet or chamber ensemble because all of them already differ from the “self-performance” original inception.
Now that we agree on that we should acknowledge that keyboard instruments performance are more difficult for the listener to follow and understand the contrapuntal lines because the sound is too homogeneous. And here we have the multi-instrumental approaches: they makes the task of understanding the work easier to non expert musicians listeners. So I’m totally pro-ensemble approach.
Final question: is a consort of viols, a early baroque period “original instruments” ensemble, more valid than a string quartet? Not at all, because both are inventions. However, the viols consort, with the different colours of their members is so beautiful and so easy to follow that is almost magical. In summary: I love how this work sounds played by a viols consort.
Ok, that was too much of an introduction for a review. The concert was amazing. The amount of work to convert this:
into a magical listening and intellectual experience is insane. You need to create dynamics, balances, find your the patch for you history-telling. And Fretwork does a superb job with it. The music breaths through the tempi, emerges and vanishes with ethereal beauty. It was a total joy to see the five players “conduct” the work together, moving their heads to mark the beats and endings. How the 4 lines are spread across the five players sounds so natural that feels like it was intended to be so.
The music sounded extrovert while remaining quiet, very peaceful. And they did the magic of letting the audience to easily feel and understand such a complicated piece of art. Thanks!
The only downside was that the 1 hour limit for the BBC 3 lunchtime concerts didn’t allow the full work to be played and contracpunti XII and XIII and the canon were left out. In exchange we got a completion for the final fugue by one of the Fretwork member, Richard Boothby, that worked perfectly as a way of bringing the work to performance+listening experience.