As heavy with legend as it is suffused with beauty, Bach’s The Art of Fugue continues to engage and fascinate audiences, musicians, and scholars to this day. Richard Boothby, leader of the English viol consort Fretwork and both a musician and a scholar, brought the five-member ensemble to the Italian Academy at Columbia University the other night to present 12 of the Art of Fugue‘s fugues, including his own completion of the unfinished final fugue which Bach famously developed out of the notes represented by the letters of his own name, B-A-C-H (what we call B-flat, A, C, and B-natural).
Evidently Fretwork’s reputation preceded it, for a full house greeted the virtuosic quintet for the concert and illustrated talk. Presented by ASPECT Foundation for Music and Arts, the event was one more demonstration of the liveliness of the Early Music scene in New York City.
Bach never specified what instrument(s) should play these mostly four-part works, or even if he meant them to be performed at all. Though often performed on a keyboard, they gain a certain power when a different instrument plays each contrapuntal line. The viola da gamba (viol) family was old-fashioned by Bach’s time – some of his most popular works are for the “modern” violin and cello – but the Art of Fugue shines on viols. These fretted precursors to the violin/viola/cello family have an expressive power all their own, each member – tenor, alto, soprano –with its own voice. Bach’s contrapuntal masterpiece took flight in Fretwork’s hands.
Before each piece Boothby pointed out a few notable features to listen for. The whole collection is based more or less on a single D-minor theme, which Bach turns upside-down, slows down, speeds up, disguises, and otherwise remolds throughout. As the ensemble played, Boothby (while playing) showed the score on projected slides, not only the printed version but on a few occasions Bach’s (significantly different) handwritten pages too. I learned a great deal as Fretwork cruised through Bach’s epic narrative, omitting only the two fugues that overstretch the viols’ ranges, wide though those ranges are.
I was not too busy learning, though – or getting lost in the music’s almost-mystical riches – to appreciate the artists’ remarkably precise intonation. Viols are hard to keep in tune after extended use, but with tuning between fugues Fretwork’s gambists remained in as perfect harmony as they were in rock-steady synchrony. And those are what counterpoint is all about. Surely Bach would have been pleased.