Sunday, March 7, 2010

The PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble presents J.S.Bach's "Art of Fugue"

J.S.Bach’s (1685-1750) “Art of Fugue” is clouded in mystery – the composer, himself, had discussed it with nobody. Begun in the early 1740’s he seems to have worked on it sporadically till his death, never completing it. His son, Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach, found it in 1751 and published it in its incomplete state.

March 6th 2010 was a mild winter’s day and Ein Kerem was drenched in sunlight, its bird population singing in full throat. Stepping through the wild, succulent garden of the Eden-Tamir Music Centre, one mounts the steps to leave the outside world far behind and enter one of Jerusalem’s most unique “sanctuaries” of music-making. We were assembled to hear the PHOENIX Early Music Ensemble’s working of Bach’s “Art of Fugue”. Those performing were Yasuko Hirata-Baroque violin, Shai Kribus-Baroque oboe, oboe d’amore, recorder, Katya Polin-Baroque viola, recorder, Alexandra Polin-bass viol and founder and musical director of the PHOENIX Ensemble Myrna Herzog on bass viol. The players were using period instruments, the bowed instruments being strung with gut strings to provide the intimate, warm color and timbre evocative of Baroque chamber music. Excluding the four Canons of the collection, we heard the 14 Contrapuncti from the Simple Fugues, through the Stretto Fugues, Double- and Triple Fugues, Mirror Fugues to the final gigantic, incomplete Quadruple Fugue. Audience members were provided with a table of themes and countersubjects to guide them through Bach’s plans and fugal techniques.

With lighter, more melodic gallant style coming into fashion, Bach turns his back on convention to compose this monothematic group of pieces, all in the introverted key of D minor and he provides few clues as to its scoring. Did he have the organ or harpsichord in mind and did he see this work as a textbook on the potential and countless permutations offered of fugal writing? What is clear is that the fugue was a form that had always fascinated the composer - music of eye and mind one level, but music of the soul and the senses on another.

Herzog’s concept is to vary instrumentation from fugue to fugue in order to tie in with the differing character of pieces and to change according to tightly packed counterpoint versus freer episodes. For Contrapunctus I, she chooses strings only to express tranquility and state the main theme. Here one is aware of Bach’s deep, religious spirituality. From then on, combinations change: Contrapunctus II is played on oboe, viola and bass viols, In Contrapunctus III, the recorder (Katya Polin) joins the strings, and so on. In Contrapunctus VI, a French-style piece, the oboe (Kribus) doubling Hirata on the top line comes across rather too strident, whereas in the energetic and challenging Contrapunctus IX, Kribus playing the oboe d’amore doubles each of the strings in turn, underlining key melodies. Herzog dedicates the ensemble’s performance of Contrapunctus XI to Glenn Gould , who had recorded parts of the work on piano and others on organ. Contrapunctus XII is the odd man out, being the only fugue in triple time, with Herzog having the last word with a wonderfully fashioned ornament. In the final weighty Contrapunctus XIV, planned as a quadruple fugue, Shai Kribus doubles different voices with recorder and, later, with oboe, to show the listener through the complexities of the different sections; we hear Bach’s signature motif – B flat-A-C-B – and then, mid-phrase, the work cuts out – a wrenching moment of nothingness and alarming silence, of Bach’s unfinished business.

The PHOENIX performance of The Art of Fugue is the result of much in-depth work on detail, texture and the layers of meaning, all of these enormously challenging to the player. Herzog refers to it as an “intellectual experience – so cerebral, sophisticated and so emotional”, a “kind of farewell to Bach”. It was, indeed, a highly intelligent and professional performance, held together by accuracy, fine musicianship, the beauty and richness of Baroque instrumental timbres and a deep sense of reverence for composer and music. A live performance of this quality brings players and audience together in an experience that reaches far beyond analysis.

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