John Frayne: BACH performance challenging, rewarding

For admirers of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a unique opportunity came March 10 at Grace Lutheran Church in Champaign. A concert sponsored by Baroque Artists of Champaign-Urbana offered a program featuring "The Art of Fugue" by Bach.

The work is a series of fugues (called by Bach "contrapuntuses") on the same musical subject. As I am sure you know, a fugue is a composition in which one subject is played against another, or itself, and the result is point-counterpoint. The Baroque Period, 1600 to 1750, is famous for its emphasis on the contrapuntal style, and Bach was the last great exponent of that style.

"The Art of Fugue" was composed near the years before Bach's death in 1750 at age 65. This work was long thought to be Bach's last group of compositions, but that now seem less certain. Bach left no indication of what instruments he intended to play these fugues, and recordings exist of all sorts of combinations of instruments, from chamber orchestras to solo, organ, harpsichord or piano.

At this BACH concert, a compromise was made. Half the fugues were played on the harpsichord by Charlotte Mattax Moersch; half were played at the organ by Dana Robinson, at least until the end of the concert.

There is a vast difference between organ and harpsichord in volume of sound, in the organ's ability to sustain pitches and in its variety of registers. But to my ears, the great advantage of organ and harpsichord is that this combination introduces a variety of sounds. Listening to 14 fugues in a row can be a challenge to begin with, and to hear them played on either organ or harpsichord alone might lead to tedium.

As it worked out, Robinson led off with Fugue Nos. 1 and 2, and after the grandeur of organ sound, the follow-up of Mattax Moersch on the harpsichord with Fugue No. 3 had the refreshing effect of simplicity and clarity.

The playing of both Mattax Moersch and Robinson was highly admirable throughout. The opening fugues I thought somewhat austere, but as the concert went on, the fugues had a greater variety of tempo and mood. My favorite was No. 9, "Canon alla Ottava," in which organist Robinson brought out its playful, dance-like quality.

This concert presented the fugues in Bach's 1742 manuscript. The version, published after Bach's death, has more pieces, and also a fugue left incomplete, and these were not played at this concert. I did not miss these omissions.

The concert, without intermission, lasted close to an hour. A recording of the whole work can add on a half-hour. Even for Bach fans, there must be a limit to what the ear can take in through concentrated listening to a succession of fugues.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this collection is that at the end of the concert, both Mattax Moersch and Robinson joined to play the "mirror" fugues on two harpsichords, and these mirror fugues can be played right side up or upside down. And no, I could not follow the inversion.

But all in all, I found the concert a most challenging and rewarding experience. I was clearly not alone. A near-capacity audience gave strong applause to the performers at the end, and Mattax Moersch and Robinson were called back twice for bows.

"The Art of Fugue" was long considered a manual of technical exercises in counterpoint. It was only after a public concert in Leipzig in 1927 that it began to be appreciated as a sublime work of musical art.

Let Albert Schweitzer, the great Bach scholar, have the last work on the thematic subject as treated in the early fugues of this work: "It introduces us to a still and serious world, deserted and rigid, without color, without light, without motion; it does not gladden, does not distract; yet we cannot break away from it."

John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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