Stephanie & Saar Make “The Art of Fugue” Enjoyable!

Art of Fugue

J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue / Stephanie Ho, Saar Ahuvia, pianists / New Focus Recordings FCR181

In their liner notes for this extraordinary release, the piano duo of Stephanie and Saar (as they prefer to be called, rather than by their last names) say some things I’ve been thinking myself for quite some time, namely, that if The Art of Fugue is to be a performance piece and not just an academic instruction book, you need to do much more with it that is normally done.

What is “normally done” is to play the fugues in a flat manner, with no dynamics changes, musical phrasing or even change of tempo. Stephanie and Saar imply that this is flat-out wrong. To quote:

…some scholars see The Art of Fugue as an academic endeavor by an aging master paying tribute to the fugue, which was by then falling out of fashion… To keep things even more fluid and ambiguous, Bach does not specify the instrumentation or the ordering of the work, nor does he indicate any tempo, dynamics or interpretative instructions… As a piano duo, exploring The Art of Fugue is especially gratifying as it allows us to perform the work in endless combinations and possibilities. We perform selections from The Art of Fugue as four-hand pieces, a few on two pianos and the two-voiced canons as solo works…Contrapunctus XIV, the incomplete fugue with Bach’s signature B-A-C-H theme, is the final Contrapunctus. As a postlude, we present the Canon in Augmentation, which we hear as Bach’s final, lamenting farewell.

But these words, heartening as they are, scarcely prepare one for the delights to be heard within. Yes, they perform some of the fugues in a slow tempo, as is considered normal, but not at a funereal pace. They consistently enliven the musical line with gradations of tone and touch, even introducing moments of rubato into the music to make it breathe. Their vision is of an Art of Fugue that is a work of performance art, not an academic piece to be listened to reverently or, as they also put it in the notes, as “a sort of ‘Da Vinci Code’ of numerology, puzzles and musical coding.” In short, they like the music, and they want you to like it, too.

And what a wonderful ride it is! How much more interesting these fugues are when some of them have their tempos picked up, the music gently nudged forward by two musical minds thinking as one. And, when played in this manner, there are further delights to discover: for instance, how Contrapuntus 6 sounds like an extension of Contrapuntus 5, except that Stephanie and Saar play it almost as an Italian Siciliana, with a rhythmic swagger that delights the ear. This is creative music-making of an extraordinarily high level. The Canon alla Ottava is no less than a swaggering tarantella. And so they go through the entire series, almost daring the listener to stop them from enjoying what they’re doing.

To return to the original concept of the series, it’s quite possible that the aging Bach, feeling his mortality, wanted to pass along a sort of “fugue textbook” to future generations, and that was all. No hidden messages or surprise packages included. Certainly, even his sons had a hard time selling people on this work. They published it it at their own expense since no publisher in Germany was interested in a huge book of fugues, all in D minor, with only three Canons to lighten the load. Over the course of the time it was in print, The Art of Fugue sold a whopping 53 copies. That’s all, folks. 53. Think about that for a minute. I’ll bet you even the worst and dullest recording of this work has sold more than 53 copies.

Hopefully, this one will sell a great deal more than that. The goal is to get the word out there. Listen to it, love it, and tell others about it. You’re not going to get much traction from the classical “press,” which is primarily British and primarily focused on English musicians. This recording isn’t glamorous enough to be nominated for a Grammy. And the performances are too lively to be played on classical radio stations, whose goal is to numb and traumatize their listeners into not thinking—about music, or anything else for that matter.

Stephanie and Saar have created a true masterpiece here. I’m sure they must have spent countless hours working these fugues out on the keyboard, deciding exactly what tempos, dynamics and phrasing they wanted to use, yet it all sounds spontaneous, as if one pianist with four hands just sat down and sight-read the music, giving it his or her personal interpretation. And please don’t lecture me on how using a small band of diverse instruments “helps” you hear the voices of the fugues more clearly. You couldn’t possibly hear them more clearly than they are here. Even the last unfinished fugue has a swagger you never hear when it is played. I was rather surprised to learn that this was the first-ever recording of the work by a piano duo, but I suppose most other piano duos are more interested in glittering, flashy music to entertain people, not meaty music that requires thinking power.

This one is going into my Penguin’s Girlfriend’s Guide. That’s how good it is.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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