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Thursday, May 07, 2015

Bach in Your Own Backyard

THE CONCERT FINISHED ABRUPTLY, in mid-phrase. The players lowered their instruments and it became clear to the puzzled audience that, for whatever reason, the piece they were playing had finished.

The reason is that Bach died before finishing the climactic quadruple fugue (with a motif based on his name also worked therein) that would have completed his Art of the Fugue. Or maybe he didn’t, and the pages are lost. Scholarship swirls around this issue as well as around the piece as a whole, which has no indicated instrumentation, thus pitting harpsichordists and organists against one another in ownership claims.

 The Emerson Quartet: Lawrence Dutton (viola),
Paul Watkins (cello), Philip Setzer
and Eugene Drucker (violins).
Which allows ensembles like the Emerson Quartet to move in. They presented a generous set of the work’s sections: all of the odd-numbered contrapunctus movements, three of the four canons, and, of course, the unfinished “Fuga a 3 Soggetti.”

The art of The Art of the Fugue lay in Bach’s realization of the contrapuntal possibilities of a brief, plaintive musical subject. A fugue can pit the theme against itself in a staggered succession of entrances; the theme can be turned upside-down, played backwards, speeded and slowed, and pitted against the various variations.

It’s as much a festival of mathematics as music, and gives Art of the Fugue a certain asceticism that keeps it from achieving audience-favorite status. But the Union College Concert Series doesn’t shy away from the intellectual, for which I’m grateful.

Honoring series founder Dan Berkenblit’s 85th birthday, the concert was as excellent a showcase of programming as it was of performance. It opened with a work by Bach’s British contemporary, Henry Purcell, whose Chacony pleasantly explores a once-controversial dance form with a theme reminiscent of the once-controversial “Folias.”

The rhythm of the melody is propelled by double-dotted notes, giving the phrasing an iambic feel that resonates with the sound of our language. The Emersons—who perform standing, with cellist Paul Watkins seated on a plinth—performed Benjamin Britten’s arrangement of the work, which I’m guessing is the source of the dynamics. As a quartet, you’re synchronized in ways that defy understanding. When they encounter hairpin dynamics, their sound swells and quiets with a precision the ensures effectiveness.

Britten’s own String Quartet No. 2 salutes the Purcell work with its own Chacony movement, the third of three. Where the works that bookended this piece weren’t necessarily written for string quartet, here there’s no doubt, and Britten’s use of the strings is masterful, beginning with the unison melody sounded over an ethereal drone from the viola.

If there’s Purcell in the third movement, the first one has the mathematic complexity of Bach sounded through tropes of Shostakovich, giving way to a middle-movement tarantella that’s always delightfully off-kilter.

But, as with Elgar’s violin concerto, the long third movement is the heart of the piece. It speaks in iambic poetry. Like Bach’s solo violin chaconne, it boasts a stately theme and a succession of variations; even as it continued to suggest Shostakovich by, for example, putting the first violin high on the G string as the other three riffed in accompaniment, it seemed to be gathering its many contrasting thoughts into a Bachian finish, but with a nod to Beethoven in the effective use of trills as an emotional device.

Performance precision is needed; that precision was so evident as to be transparent. Not just technically: this is a passionate work that speaks best through players who realize what’s there and have the wit to add nothing more.

By the concert’s second half, we were as prepared as we’d ever be for the journey through those staggering fugues. The opening statement was quiet and lean, played with almost no vibrato, but this would go on to be an un-HIP approach, with vibrato and other interpretive saltings sprinkled effectively.

No merry melodies here to let the auditor slip into auto-listen mode. The fun of this work is to keep the melodic subject in mind and figure out, in real time, what’s been done to it and guess where it will pop up next. If it seemed too difficult, let me suggest that you can get the same challenge from the music of Berg, beside which this piece is a veritable tune-fest.

As an encore, a chorale Bach supposedly dictated from his deathbed to serve as a closer, and it was a warm, gentle end to the program and to the season.

The Emerson Quartet

Union College Memorial Chapel, April 28

Metroland Magazine, 7 May 2015

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