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Bach, The Art of Fugue: Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) Wigmore Hall, 17.2.2008 (MB)

Contrapunctus I
Contrapunctus II
Contrapunctus III
Contrapunctus IV
Contrapunctus VI, im Stile francese
Contrapunctus XIII, a 3 (rectus)
Contrapunctus VII, per Augmentationem et Diminutionem
Contrapunctus XIII, a 3 (inversus)
Contrapunctus V
Contrapunctus IX, alla Duodecima
Contrapunctus X


Canon alla Duodecima in Contrapuncto alla Quinta
Canon alla Ottava
Canon alla Decima, Contrapuncto alla Terza
Canon per Augmentationem in contrario motu
Contrapunctus XIV (Fuga a 3 Soggetti)
Contrapunctus XII, a 4 (rectus)
Contrapunctus VIII, a 3
Contrapunctus XII (inversus)
Contrapunctus XI

This was a puzzling concert: impressive in many ways and yet also oddly unsatisfying. One might claim that any performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue is bound to fall short, especially given the uncertainties attendant to all issues regarding performance (even, for a few, its desirability). Yet one could with more or less equal justice claim the opposite, namely that Bach’s contrapuntal compendium should be able to satisfy like almost nothing else, at least if one leaves aside its lack of completion. I list the order above in which Pierre-Laurent Aimard performed its constituent parts. He adopted a different order – I-XIII; canons; XIV – for his recent recording, and it would seem that he had originally intended to perform the pieces in an entirely different order as lain out in the programme, to which we were offered a correction sheet. It would be interesting to know whether he regularly changes the order; there is certainly no reason why he should not. The unfinished fugue was left in mid-air, unfinished.

Much of Aimard’s performance was extremely un- (or even anti-) Romantic. I do not mean this in a sense of veering towards ‘period performance’ characteristics, an even more problematical concept in this work than any other. Rather, it seemed as though his was in many ways a brazenly modernist conception. This should perhaps not surprise. Aimard is, after all, most celebrated for his work in new music, not least in that of Ligeti and Messiaen. What emerged from the first half of the recital and a good part of the second was a presentation of what one might – hedged with all sorts of qualifications – characterise as Bach’s music as music at its purest. It was severe, didactic, note-perfect. It is no coincidence that Boulez was so drawn to the Art of Fugue that he conducted it in his Domaine Musical concerts. (It would be wonderful if a recording survived, although I have never heard of one.) Although the music is tonal, the harmony seemed not to matter. It might as well have been early or serialist polyphony: Bach as Ockeghem or Stockhausen.

So far, so good: a fascinating conception, with much reason behind it. Yet Aimard’s performance was also – with a few exceptions – quite unyielding and downright heavy-handed, extremely ‘un-French’, one might say. Not quite everything, but a great deal of the music nevertheless, was, quite simply, very loud. It also lacked inflection. No one would expect him to play the Art of Fugue like Debussy, but should one really pay so little attention to the instrument chosen for performance? This was clearly a decision on Aimard’s part, but I am not sure that it proved convincing in and as performance. If it is decided – rightly, in my view – to treat the score as music to be performed, then surely it should actually be performed. What rather muddies the waters is the fact that there were exceptions to this manner of presentation. Occasionally, the subject was hugely emphasised, arguably over-emphasised, as if it were being played out on a trombone. The final canon, for instance, was performed with a great deal of dynamic inflection, both on a short- and long-term basis. So were several of the later fugues, although to a lesser extent. I have to admit that I could not understand the reason for this transformation of interpretative stance. Far more convincing was the skill with which, especially during the canons, Aimard drew to our attention – without undue underlining – the relation between what we were hearing and the original subject. In this, he took advantage of the piano, and reaped musical rewards for doing so. However, I emerged from the recital impressed by the work, whose dazzling array of contrapuntal devices had been very clearly presented, yet also somewhat relieved that it was over. This is not at all the reaction for which I had been hoping.

Mark Berry

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