The only other time I can recall that I have heard the complete Art of Fugue in concert was also at the Wigmore Hall, in a performance given a little over two years ago by Pierre-Laurent Aimard (click here). Aimard’s performance had its strengths, but also had its weaknesses, not least that it sometimes seemed more of a lecture than a performance. At the time I mused, as a consequence of a curiously unsatisfying experience: ‘One might claim that any performance of Bach’s Art of Fugue is bound to fall short, especially given the uncertainties attendant to all issues regarding performance (even, for a few, its desirability). Yet one could with more or less equal justice claim the opposite, namely that Bach’s contrapuntal compendium should be able to satisfy like almost nothing else, at least if one leaves aside its lack of completion.’ If Aimard led me to lean towards the former option, Konstantin Lifschitz left me with no doubt whatsoever that Bach’s summa might satisfy like nothing else; his was a truly outstanding performance, with which I could find nothing whatsoever to quibble, an extraordinary outcome given the number of plausible, let alone possible, options for performance.
The only feeling that might have approximated to doubt arose with Lifschitz’s una corda rendition of Contrapunctus I. Yet use of the soft pedal, which might often have seemed mannered, soon came to seem beside the point in a performance that somehow sounded, and not only because Lifschitz began before the opening applause had subsided, as though it began in medias res. It was as if what was going on had always been going on, prompting – as the performance did throughout – philosophical speculation. Is this the pre-Socratic, monistic thought of Parmenides that what has always been must continue to be, and that change is therefore impossible? Not at all, once one thinks, or listens; rather it is the Christian: ‘As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.’
Contrapunctus II came as a surprising contrast, opening in almost unrelenting fortissimo, redolent if abstracted from the particular performance, of Mussorgsky’s Bydlo. But the point is that, abstract as the music may be, it is not abstracted. Everything had its place under Lifschitz’s hands, so much that I began to think about Bach as a musical equivalent to great scholastic schemes such as that of St Thomas Aquinas – only surpassing them in every respect. Not for nothing did Lifschitz’s rhythmic surety point towards the late Beethoven of the op.111 sonata and the Diabelli Variations, whilst remaining faithful to Bachian musical science ( the German Wissenschaft so much more broadly construed than modern English ‘science’). Everything was to be heard in what followed, or so it seemed. Extraordinary pianistic delicacy and fugues seemingly led by ‘modern’ harmonic concerns mixed shoulders with, or rather interacted with, stile antico deliberation that yet revealed the music’s inner workings upon the outside, not unlike the Centre Pompidou, home of IRCAM. (It is no coincidence that Boulez conducted this very work during his Domaine musical years, nor that a modernist pianist such as Aimard has shown himself so attracted to it.) In Contrapunctus V, one could hear Byrd and Chopin – yet at the same time only Bach. The stile francese of Contrapunctus VI immediately brought to mind yet immediately surpassed Couperin, whilst its pianistic conclusion summoned the ghost – or should that be a premonition – of Busoni, who needless to say, reappeared in the supreme consolation of the closing chorale, ‘Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit!’
In between, however, there was much more to hear, as thoughts began to wander from Aquinas to the more dynamic form of Aristotelian ontology, relieved of scholastic encrustation, offered by Hegel – not that ideas of Platonic forms deserted one either. Augmentation and diminution were not only observed but fully experienced, not merely displayed but heard to be absolutely necessary, in a dialectic between freedom and organisation that pointed to and yet beyond Kant. Bergian chromaticism, even Birtwistle’s labyrinth, could be discerned, without the slightest doubt that Bach remained himself throughout. Lifschitz’s magnificent, unforced command of cumulative power, both within fugues and throughout the ‘work’ as a whole, was crucial to this and to much else. Fury could be expressed, but never inappropriately, and never at the cost – so readily paid by many – of sounding hard-driven. Likewise limpidity moved one beyond tears, without the slightest hint of sentimentality. This was music both for and beyond the piano, shimmering Romanticism and old-fashioned organ-reed registration dissolving or sublating themselves seamlessly into abstraction that yet reached beyond abstraction. No sooner had one heard elements of a gigue-like dance then one knew that this was no mere dance: modern ‘authenticist’ reductionism completely misses the point here, as in so much else. But such thoughts concerning other schools of performance only occurred later: at the time, one heard Bach, and only Bach, and believed that there could be nothing else.
I shall be astonished if this does not prove to be one of my performances of the year. Bach remains the Alpha and the Omega of music; a performance that proves worthy of him is distinguished indeed.