Commentary: Bach’s ‘Art of the Fugue’ now (by Daniil Trifonov) and then (by John Cage)
The news Sunday afternoon was a prodigious live performance of arguably the least performable and unarguably greatest contrapuntal exercise in the history of music, Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue,” by Daniil Trifonov at Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo. Only 28, he is already one of the world’s most remarkable pianists. The legend grows.
The news Sunday night was that not every Hollywood star was an Oscar ceremony parasite. At the Hollywood gallery LAXart, exactly one mile from the Oscars’ Dolby Theatre, Julian Sands read the news as part of a performance of John Cage’s “Speech.” Sands was once a quite believable Liszt in the unjustly neglected 1991 George Sand biopic, “Impromptu.” Here he did Cage justice.
Yes, that was an amusing Sand/Sands coincidence. But it doesn’t come anywhere close to the extraordinary other news Sunday.
It just so happens that LAXart, at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Orange Drive, is on the site of a legendary RCA Victor studio, where Louis Armstrong, Elvis, Stravinsky, Nat King Cole — you name ’em — famously recorded. The studio, which burned down in 2012, was presumably where 85 years ago pianists Richard Buhlig and Wesley Kuhnle made the first recording of “The Art of the Fugue.”
Buhlig, furthermore, was Cage’s first composition teacher, and Cage was asked to turn pages for one of the recording sessions. It was a disaster. As Cage recalled, he became so fascinated looking at Bach’s counterpoint, he forgot to listen.
All of this remarkably relates, because “The Art of the Fugue” is an example of what the Germans call augenmusik, or eye music. The term became a pejorative for the graphic scores of the 1950s avant-garde by the likes of Cage.
Bach wrote “The Art of the Fugue” during his last decade as simply (not that anything is simple about this work) four separate musical staves without indication of instrumentation. He completed 13 fugues, each more mind-bogglingly complicated than the last, all based on the same subject. That subject goes through the contrapuntal wringer, played normally and turned upside down, slowed down and sped up (sometimes at the same time), embellished, chromatically altered, and so on.
The lines of counterpoint pile up mercilessly. Unraveling it all is a monumental analytic task, one more for the intellect than the ear. But the score does pretty much fit the hands, making it the province of keyboard players (although it has also been taken up by string quartets and ensembles of all sorts). Plus, playing it has a mystique. The 14th and most elaborate fugue was never finished, and, while not all historians buy the theory, the lore is that Bach died at that moment writing it. There is no easier way to break a listener’s heart than to stop a performance, as is usually the case, in mid-phrase.
The actual playing of “The Art of the Fugue” is then nothing Bach would have ever imagined, and it becomes an act of creative interpretation. There are those who are cool and crisp, as were Buhlig and Kuhnle. (Although Victor never released the recording, the shellacs from the sessions survived and were assembled for a CD on a British boutique label, Pearl, now out of print and rare.)
There are those who treat it as Bach’s last testament to be played with slow spiritual ardor, as can be found in recordings by Russian pianist Tatiana Nikolayeva and German organist Helmut Walcha. Glenn Gould sought out curiosities. Harpsichordist Bob van Asperen decorates his new recording with playful ornamentations. Pianists Charles Rosen and Pierre-Laurent Aimard made recordings of a structural strength and contrapuntal transparency that are ideal for studying.
Also a composer, Trifonov turns “The Art of the Fugue” into a genuine concert work in ways no one before seems to have. He doesn’t give equal length to contrapuntal lines. He doesn’t bog a listener down with trying to pick out all three or four or five or six different musical things flying by at the same time.
He instead puts emphasis on the theme coming and going as if it is a character in a novel having a host of adventures. The counterpoint flies by in the background. But you know it’s there, a thicket full of wonders.
Trifonov was often very fast. He exhibited the fluidity and flair of a Romantic pianist and of a modern pianist. He could be somber. He could be extravagant. He could be clever. He could be epic. He couldn’t stop being dramatic. And, most of all, he was stunningly in command. It was all ear music.
Although not so credited in the program, Trifonov completed the final fugue to provide a triumphant ending. His is not the first folly to sound like Bach. But he got away with it.
The momentum for the 90-minute performance, which was broken up by an intermission, was such that the train had left the station, and if Bach couldn’t keep it going, Trifonov had no choice other than to pilot. One cheered him on without second thoughts. Having heroically arrived, he gave thanks with Myra Hess’ arrangement of Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and encores by three Bach sons, who were the ones who put “The Art of the Fugue” together after their father died.
Nothing could have seemed more different than being in a Hollywood gallery three hours later for a special free Sunday night concert by the Monday Evening Concerts series. Cage’s “Speech” was the second half. First the Echoi Ensemble performed French artist Yves Klein’s “Symphonie Monoton-Silence,” which is nothing more than 20 minutes of a drone on D followed by 20 minutes of silence. That is to say, it is one note out of the thousands in “The Art of the Fugue” and one rest extravagantly slowed down.
And yet, the crowd sat in exactly the same enthralled silence as had Bach aficionados at Soka, with nary a flu-season cough at either concert. Instrumentalists and singers lined the back of the gallery. The drone was its own sonic forest, one of small sounds with overtones and different timbres subtly in play. The silence that followed was then rather a meditation, an occasion for alertness to unexpected faint sounds always around us but seldom discoverable.
Cage’s “Speech,” which is for reader and five radios, is a series of time-based instructions for turning on and off the radios at chance-determined times and for reciting the news in the same way. The radio stations can be whatever. The reader makes his own selections. Twenty years after his page-turning fiasco, Cage made a piece free of turning but not timing.
Sitting at table with sections from The Times, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, a deadpan Sands, putting his faith in the material read about goings-on in Washington, of visual art reports and an amusingly snarky review of “Birds of Prey.” With the background of opera, rap, rants and religion coming out of the radios, the world seemed as upside down and turned around as the score of a Bach fugue that doesn’t tell you how to go about making it music.
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