If the fugue is the most complex way to structure music, Bach’s “Art of the Fugue” is the most enigmatic example of that complexity. It is the summa of the composer’s contrapuntal endeavors, but it was still something of a surprise to see the National Presbyterian Church filled to capacity to hear the Washington Bach Consort perform it Sunday afternoon. This austere work, an elaboration of every possible fugal trick in the bag, is not one of the composer’s most popular; indeed, this was the Bach Consort’s first performance of it.
Most scholars agree that Bach intended the piece for the harpsichord, but this performance, like many others, was arranged for an ensemble: four string instruments, with some movements performed ably by J. Reilly Lewis and Scott Dettra on two harpsichords. Andrew Fouts, the group’s new concertmaster, was exemplary on the highest part, playing with clean intonation and radiant tone. Two viols on the middle parts were too easily covered and sometimes rhythmically off-center (with one false start just before intermission), and the violone seemed not quite agile nor clear enough to suit the lowest part.
When transcribing the piece for other instruments, it seems a waste not to use a larger and more diverse ensemble. This version had a dour sameness to it, with sunshine breaking out only in the gigue-like leap to Contrapunctus 13 and the ecstatic expanse of the concluding triple fugue. Wisely, the musicians allowed the piece to trail off where the manuscript ends, at the point where Bach wove in his own name’s musical theme and left the piece incomplete, and therefore infinite. It was an unnecessary but moving gesture to append the organ chorale prelude “Before your throne I now appear,” thought to be Bach’s final composition.
Downey is a freelance writer.