The Art of Fugue, BWV1080
Konstantin Lifschitz (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 28 April, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
Since publication barely a year after the composer’s death, J. S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue has attracted an almost mystical reputation on account of its underlying purpose as well as its ultimate intention: a compendium of fugal practice whose progressive technical complexity is informed by an expressive opening-out that offsets any risk of didacticism or aridity. A work, too, whose very abstraction has invited many realisations – from orchestra to electronics – but is best experienced on solo keyboard; not least the piano which, emerging at the time of Bach’s death, is uniquely equipped to convey the intricacy and grandeur of his last major undertaking.
Certainly it is a medium about whose suitability Konstantin Lifschitz, following in the footsteps of numerous Russian forebears, harbours no doubts – this performance reaffirming the impression made by his recent recording (on Orfeo) of a conception that marries an unwavering attention to detail with a cumulative emotional sweep to persuasive effect. How to present the overall sequence remains an issue of contention, but Lifschitz’s adhering to that first published edition does enable him to group the individual ‘contrapunctae’ in groups such as emphasise the music’s elaboration in terms of inversions and retrogrades of its basic theme. So the first half proceeded from unadorned accounts of the first four pieces, via poised renderings of the next three items (including ‘Contrapunctus VI’ with its French-style rhythmic profile) to the polyphonic ingenuity of ‘Contrapunctus VIII’, followed by two double fugues then the climactic triple fugue of ‘Contrapunctus XI’.
After the interval, Lifschitz grouped the two mirror fugues that are ‘Contrapunctus XII’ and ‘Contrapunctus XIII’ – music which requires all of the clarity and articulation evident here for its qualities of symmetry and proportion to be realised in sound as on the page. Other performers have placed the five Canons as interludes between the Fugues, but Lifschitz’s grouping them into a self-contained sequence provided a welcome change of perspective with their contrapuntal sleights of hand conveyed in a relatively limited compass, while their more immediate virtuosity made contrast with ‘Contrapunctus XIV’ the more telling. Whether or not the culmination of Bach’s fugal odyssey, this mighty piece has preoccupied generations of musicians – breaking off as the B-A-C-H motif is introduced in a quadruple fugue that has received completions both methodical (Tovey) and re-creative (Busoni) but which loses little impact when allowed to end as the composer left it.
Which is what Lifschitz did here – counting out a pause between this and the chorale prelude ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöthensein’ appended to that first edition in an act of editorial intervention a century ahead of its time yet whose appositeness in following monumental complexity with touching simplicity cannot be doubted. Rendering it slowly though without impeding the underlying pulse, Lifschitz made it feel the true destination of the 93-minute journey: one which, played from memory, had a smattering of wrong notes and chordal imbalances to remind one that this music is an act of communication between people and across ages.