Madge Plays Bach’s “Art of Fugue”

Madge cover

J.S. BACH: The Art of Fugue / Geoffrey Douglas Madge, pno / Zefir ZEF9683, also available for free streaming on Spotify

Bach’s last piece has proved to be a knotty cerebral experiment since it was first published, an edition prepared by his two oldest sons Wilhelm Friedemann and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. They printed this at their own expense because, since the work was unfinished at Johann Sebastian’s death in 1750, no publisher was interested in it. Much to the brothers’ surprise, it sold very badly. Two years after its publication, they had only sold about 50 or 60 copies. Needless to say, they lost a lot of money on it.

Yet part of the problem is now, and apparently always has been, what instrument or instruments one should play it on. Even though Bach only wrote the music in two saves, treble and bass, the music eventually becomes so complex that chamber groups have made arrangements of it as well as orchestras. I have three recordings in my collection, the first played by the duo Stephanie & Saar, one by the late, great organist Marie-Claire Alain with a chamber orchestra conducted by Stefan Mai, and one a score for full orchestra written and conducted by Charles Munch.

But the confusion goes even further, and that is in the matter of tempos. Since the music DOES become so complex, most performers are wont to play or conduct it at a fairly slow tempo, and part of this confusion stems from the way that Johann Sebastian and Carl Philipp Bach wrote the music out. Here, in this first page from the autograph score, you can see that the first fugue is written in cut time, which means 2/2 with a half note receiving one beat, BUT J.S. included FOUR half notes to the bar, or four beats:

Art of Fugue, autograph, p. 1

And now, here are the first two pages of the score in C.P.E.’s handwriting. Note that he has, quite sensibly in my opinion, relegated the music properly, with only TWO half notes per bar or two beats as indicated by the ¢:

Art of Fugue score 1 CPE

Art of Fugue score 2 CPE

To further complicate matters regarding this specific recording, Geoffrey Douglas Madge does not include any piece that is not marked as a fugue, meaning that he eliminates the Canons in the latter part, going straight from “Contrapunctus inversus XIII part 2” to the long but unfinished “Fuga à 3 soggetti.” Since I could not download or read the booklet for this set, but could only review the actual music via Spotify, I have no idea why he did this, but since I have the highest respect for him as a musician—he was, after all, only the second pianist to ever record Kaikhosru Sorabji’s massive Opus Clavicembalisticum back in the late 1980s—I will take his performance on its own merits.

Madge, like most performers of this music, takes moderate to slow tempi in each piece. The difference in his playing of them is that he uses a fully modern-sounding piano with a sensuous legato flow to the music and pedal, with has the effect of making the music sound more curved and arced rather than clipped and staccato. He also uses gradations of dynamics, something that is missing from the score but which, as a performing musician himself, J.S. Bach probably intended but didn’t notate. This is something that often eludes the musicologists who try to recreate “historical” performance practice; because most keyboards of Bach’s time had very little ability to produce gradations of volume, they assume that the composer did not hear this in his mind when writing the music down on paper. Not true; the composers intended that you, as a performing musician, would use your own taste and good judgment in inserting such things into their scores.

Interestingly, Madge plays the second Contrapunctus with a neat 6/8 swagger, almost giving the music the feeling of a tarantella. Considering how much Italian music Bach based his own scores on, this is also probably correct. But it isn’t just this one piece; as you go through the cycle, you’ll hear all sorts of rhythmic “lift” to the music that flies in the face of conventional thinking about Baroque music but is right and proper for MUSIC, period. I’ve always said that one of the reasons why more people tend not to appreciate Bach is because of the strict and often stiff tempi and phrasing used in the performance of his scores. If you play them simply as music and stop thinking about the historicity of it all, you’ll come to a greater understanding of what these composers were all about. (And that’s why I prefer Virgil Fox’s and early Marie-Claire Alain’s Bach recordings to any other organist, because they played them as music and not as some dull historic exercise.) Moreover, Madge also understands the difference in both rhythm and phrasing between the Italian style and the French; in the “Contrapunctus VI à 4 in stylo française,” he gives us a true French “galant” rhythm, distinguishable from the Italian in its more stylized accents, and he also “builds” the music to a nice climax.

Indeed, the great joy that one derives from this performance is exactly that, Madge’s ability to present the score as music and not as some dull, dry academic exercise. The same thing, of course, can (and should) be applied to all of his keyboard works as well as the Cello Suites, the Violin Sonatas & Partitas, and even the various cantatas and concerti. One thing that has always stuck in my mind was a comment that Wilhelm Furtwängler made that most musicologists have scoffed at but which made sense to me, that in addition to the mathematical precision of his music, J.S. Bach was the first Romantic composer. Of course, the implication in this statement is that his orchestral works should be played by large, heavy orchestras, which is not altogether correct, but consider the fact that when his son C.P.E. put on a performance of his father’s Mass in B Minor in the 1780s, he used a full orchestra and a chorus of nearly 100 voices. I’d say that his own son knew his intentions better than some dweeb of a modern conductor using that ridiculous one-voice-to-a-part in the vocal part of the score.

In the “Contrapunctus X à 4 alla decima,” Madge also uses some extremely subtle rubato effects, and he employs the same thing in his performance of the “Contrapunctus XI à 4,” all of which adds both suppleness and color to the music. By contrast, the “Contrapunctus XII à 4” opens in a sad, slow mood befitting its minor key, yet Madge ever-so-slightly increases the tempo for the crescendo passages, relaxing it again during the soft ones. In this manner, he makes the piece sound like music and not like a mere exercise. With “Contrapunctus XIII à 3,” we’re back to a nice Italian tarantella rhythm.

And that, boys and girls, is the reason I much prefer reviewing the work of a seasoned veteran whose playing I respect over that of the numerous young “phenoms” who win all their competitions but have no real understanding of music per se. This is the work of a master who fully understands what he is playing and why, a recording to be treasured and listened to several times in order to absorb the numerous subtleties he puts into the music.

By the way…since I had to review this album on Spotify, I was of course subjected to five “ad breaks.” These consisted of the following: “Life is so hard, you need to eat some Cheetos and relax;” “Make sure you get your Covid vaccine shot;” and “Go buy some state lottery scratch-off tickets today!” No wonder people are feeling suicidal in our society!

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter (@Artmusiclounge) or Facebook (as Monique Musique)

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