“Bach writes the most difficult music intellectually; he writes the most powerful music emotionally; at the same time, he writes the hardest music to play among all of the composers we have.” - Charles Rosen
The quotation is taken from the BBC documentary of Johann Sebastian Bach, in which I think Rosen’s words are best to describe Bach’s contrapuntal music, and particularly his last unfinished work - The Art of Fugue, one of the most esoteric works ever written. Published in 1751, a year after the composer’s death, The Art of Fugue consists of fourteen fugues and four canons, which are unified by a single principle subject. Though the order of the movements is still an ongoing question, it is clear that the composer intended to organize them in a logical progression with a growing of complexity. Intellectually, the interweaving voices in the music are perfectly putting together both horizontally (melodically) and vertically (harmonically), even in the most demanding contrapuntal passages, no aesthetic sense has to sacrifice. Moreover, countersubjects and variations of the theme such as inversions, augmentation and diminution, have shaped the music emotionally. Technically, it might be the hardest keyboard music to play, as the performer has to handle up to six moving voices with only ten fingers. Although debate continues about the instrumentation of the work since it was published in open-score with no specified instrument, playing the entire work on a keyboard makes no surprise for our century.
As a masterpiece, perhaps, The Art of Fugue leaves us more uncertainty than determinacy. Was the work really intended to be played, or was it merely an abstract thought to demonstrate contrapuntal technique? Why did the work leave unfinished? Did the illness prevent Bach from completing it, or was it the composer’s idea of a musical puzzle? Probably, these questions would not be settled, as definite answers can never be given. However, what makes the story more interesting is that the discussion about Bach’s music and particular The Art of Fugue, throughout the last 250 years, has gone far beyond the music scholarship and touched upon different field of studies, such as science and mathematics, philosophy, cosmology, theology, archeology, numerology, and even the area of occultism, like alchemy and kabbalah. Historically speaking, Bach was living in the era of the ideological change of the Western culture: i.e. the epistemological shift from Christianity to Humanity; from ancient celestial sphere to modern mechanical world; and from the age of cosmos to the age of cosmopolitan. For Bach himself, music is both spiritual and rational in existence; it is not only an art of sound, but also the art of everything. Given such a context, historians, conscious or not, view Bach’s music in multiple ways, touching upon multiple disciplines and areas, even though his music might or might not have those extra-musical qualities.
In Hong Kong, The Art of Fugue is rarely performed, and is even much rare to be heard - until Konstantin Lifschitz’s recital on September 26 - the entire work in a single concert. The performance was held at the Grand Hall at The University of Hong Kong, one of the finest concert venues in the city. Surrounded by such an academic atmosphere, the evening did not start with a musical note, but with a handsome speech by Daniel Chua, who is the professor of music at the university. His talk mainly focused on the context of the work. For two reasons, he regarded The Art of Fugue as Bach’s ‘Art of Dying’ (ars moriendi). Firstly, the work was a summation of the dying art form (fugue) to which Bach had devoted his entire life. Secondly, the unfinished work served as an epitaph for Bach himself. Concluded by Chua, the magnificent work, on one hand shows Bach’s supreme contrapuntal skills that he used a single theme to create an entire cosmos with infinite variety; on the other hand, it acts as the micro-cosmos of the composer’s oeuvre. Following the 5-minute speech, the 39-year-old Ukrainian pianist who dressed in a plain black shirt made his appearance on the stage. He did not make a hurry start, but took a minute to settle down the audience, and perhaps himself as well, before the long musical journey.
Both the piano and pianist were in excellent condition. The Steinway was well tuned, and the Ukrainian, who played from memory, was well prepared. Right after listening to the subject of Contrapunctus 1, one might immediately realize that Lifschitz’s rendition is different from that of his recording made in 2009. In the recording, the first four minims were clearly separated from each other as if some kind of strings bowing, while in the live performance, these notes were legato in appearance, exhibiting a vocal quality. I do not know Lifschitz’s intention for the change, but indeed, it shows that Bach’s music with sparse performance directions (e.g. slurs, staccato) and dynamic indications, always provides opportunities for performers to rethink, reinterpret, or even to reinvent.
Lifschitz is a remarkable pianist who looks for the maximization of the instrument’s potential of tone colours. He had frequently employed both the damper pedal and una corda throughout the performance, but never at the cost of the clarity of sound; indeed, beautiful layers of tone were created with his intelligent use of feet. On many occasions, the performance was not lacking historical awareness, such as dotted notes played as double-dotted in the French style Contrapunctus 6, and the rhythmic alignment of the semiquaver with the third note of the triplet. Moreover, the pianist put great emphasis of cantabile style, emanating a recall of Bach’s preface of the Inventions and Sinfonias. In the composer’s words, these pieces offer players “to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, to handle three obligate parts correctly and well……above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing.” After all, if one found Lifschitz’s Bach, an over-romantic one, this could be attributable to the pedantic authentic movement in the 1950s, interpreting Bach as a boring and dry composer.
Obviously, an enormous composition, like The Art of Fugue, should have plenty of ‘contrasts’ in balancing the work. Lifschitz’s dramatic reading of the work, hence, was not without a reason. Here, his sound range was wide, and the variant of dynamic was structurally considered: usually occurred between sections or movements instead of tiny musical phrases. The Ukrainian put more focus on the alters of articulation and timbre, as well as the variety of musical character of each movement. For instance, a contrast of tone was found in the starting two fugues: the peaceful and expressive Contrapunctus 1 was played with a great delicacy and a lyrical sonority, while the dotted-rhythm in Contrapunctus 2 was brought up with a solid and powerful tone, which turned the movement in an energetic manner. Articulation, too, was changing from time to time; even within the same movement, different kinds of touching had occasionally employed, such as the legato opening of the Contrapunctus 5 later became portato in the ‘mirror’ episode.
Listening to Lifschitz’s Art of Fugue, one would not feel compelled to disentangle each of the moving voices at a time, but to perceive all the interweaving contrapuntal lines as a harmonized whole. Indeed, performing music is different from pure music-analysis. Unlike some pianists who often exaggerate the entries of the subject by ‘hammering’ the notes as if telling listeners ‘here comes the theme’, Lifschitz avoided invading the music in such a pseudo-analytical way. Instead, he let the voices come in smoothly as if the music can ‘speak for itself’.
The only bizarre moment of the performance was the place where Bach marked ‘cadenza’ at the penultimate measure of the Canon alla Decima Contrapunto allo Terza. Lifschitz had indeed improvised a passage at the composer’s request. However, the playing was controversial. The motive of the cadenza was taken from a melodic figure in the previous measure, [F-G-A-B flat-D-C sharp] and was played several times in a chromatic downward sequence, as a resemblance of the chromaticism of the canon. The interval of fifth also appeared here to make an allusion of the principle theme. The cadenza, in fact, made perfect harmonic sense, but what really shocked the audience, was the abrupt changes of register throughout the playing. In the one-minute cadenza, Lifschitz’s fingers, without notable sequence, almost moved across from the very top note to the lowest register of the piano. Not to say the 17th century keyboards without such high and low octaves, the sudden change of registers was also unconventional to the baroque practice. Definitely, this interpretation was astonishing for any audience who expected a historical-informed performance. A sense of modernity was undoubtedly expressed here; perhaps, it was the pianist’s intention for using such a cadenza to bridge the gap between the baroque era and our own time.
Following the eccentric cadenza, here came the final fugue. It is well known that the unfinished Contrapunctus 14 ended at the entrance of the third subject made up of composer’s name B-A-C-H in musical notation. Although some musicians are eager to reconstruct the missing section, Lifschitz made no attempt to complete the incompleteness, the fugue was left in mid-air. Here, the pianist gave a ‘fadeout’ effect just before the ending point so as to weaken the awkwardness of the sudden stop, and it worked effectively.
As the very last note had gone, nothing was left at the concert hall, but a long silence. The pianist halted his hands, and the audience held their breath. Perhaps, for any audience like me, who get used to the hustle and bustle of a city life, the most precious sound of music, ironically, is un-sounded. If alchemy has to be related to The Art of Fugue, this very pause would be the moment that turned time into gold. Silence is golden. Incompleteness became eternalized.
The contemplation was followed by a consolation. The musical journey was concluded with the so-called deathbed chorale ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, which Bach dictated on his bed shortly before his death. It was published posthumously in the first edition of The Art of Fugue as an ersatz for the unfinished ending. In Lifschitz’s hands, the G major chorale was poetic, beautiful, and full of tranquility. Not for a single moment, did the eyes of the pianist look down to the keyboard, as if the instrument had no longer existed; the intrinsic counterpoint had become unconscious. If there were anything remaining on the stage, it would only be the sound of enchantment - the glory of music. Given such a magical moment, one would even question, do we really need the encore piece of the Goldberg Variation (Aria) afterwards.
Lifschitz’s reading of Bach was humanistic, but never a didactic one. The performance was highly impressive not because of the pianistic perfection, nor the amazing memory skill of the performer, but his deep insight on Bach’s music, which enabled him to play the hardest music in a most emotional manner. Every musical note, voice, interval, counterpoint, as well as the tension of the music, under his hands, was not only heard but also well perceived. Is The Art of Fugue really a work to be performed? It would no longer be a question for anyone who had attended Lifschitz’s recital.