Tuesday, September 20, 2022

The Art of Fugue

In discussing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Die Kunst der Fuge (The Art of Fugue), one is tempted to use words usually associated with theology and philosophy rather than music. So complex is its design, so profound its meaning, and so challenging to the intellect - and concentration - of the musician who dares to scale its towering height, it is, not surprisingly, not a work often found in concert programmes. Even Glenn Gould would, in his concert-giving days, only programme a few fugues from the set in his recital programmes.


Pianist Filippo Gorini appears to be a pianist well suited to the task of performing these works, being, even in his relatively young age, already associated with works like Beethoven’s late sonatas and the Diabelli Variations. Indeed, he is proving himself to be an artist whose, in Artur Schnabel’s facetious words, second half of his recital being just as boring as the first.


Well, there was no second half to yesterday’s recital, when the Vancouver Recital Society launched its season with this bold presentation. After a brief talk about his journey of discovery into Bach’s monumental work, Gorini proceeded, over the next hour and a half, to play, from memory, the entire set from Contrapunctus 1 to the unfinished Contrapunctus 14.


In examining the score of this work, it seems like Bach did have the keyboard in mind when he composed the work. In the technically challenging Contrapunctus 7, 9 and 13, the music seems eminently pianistic, difficult as they may be. In my readings, Bach did have the harpsichord predominantly in his mind when composing these fugues -- What I wouldn’t give to hear Bach play them on the harpsichord!


Gorini was completely and utterly above the technical challenges of the piece, which allowed this listener to focus completely to his approach to the music. That said, I could not help but ponder upon the transcendental technique he must possess in order to present these works as convincingly as he did. I liked the searching manner in which he began many of the fugues, almost as if he is inviting us to embark upon this astounding musical journey. That said, he managed to infuse within each fugue a slightly different character. Throughout the performance, he was like a man who both lost and found himself, losing himself completely in the music, yet clearly seeing the way before him.


Can music like this be “enjoyable”, or moving? My answer from yesterday’s performance is a resounding “yes”. From the first notes of the subject in Contrapunctus 1 to the singular final note of Contrapunctus 14, it was, totally and utterly, an overwhelmingly emotional and moving experience. Throughout the afternoon, there was a feeling of spiritual exultation in Gorini’s music-making. The 90 minutes of the recital went by very quickly indeed.


I would be very keen to keep my eyes and ears open for this young artist’s development. 


I look forward to his next journey of musical discovery.