Thursday 2 September 2021

Surprisingly satisfying: Bach's The Art of Fugue from Les inAttendus

Bach The Art of Fugue; Les inAttendus; Harmonia Mundi
Bach The Art of Fugue; Les inAttendus; Harmonia Mundi

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 28 August 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Despite the unlikelihood of the combination of accordion, bass viol and Baroque violin, this account of Bach's late masterpiece pleases on so many levels

It might seem highly unlikely but this new disc of Bach's The Art of Fugue from Harmonia Mundi proves surprisingly satisfying on many levels. Surprising because the players are the French group Les inAttendus, comprising accordion Vincent Lhermet, seven string bass viol Marianne Muller and Baroque violin Alice Piérot , not a combination of instruments which immediately springs to mind when considering Bach's late masterpiece.

As Les inAttendus, Lhermet (accordion) and Muller (bass viol) had already recorded a disc for Harmonia Mundi (Poetical Humours, a depiction of English melancholy with music by Dowland, Gibbons, Hume), and have already explored Bach’s Sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord (BWV 1027-1029), and they started talking about The Art of Fugue in 2015. With the addition of Pierot, they had the ability to cover all four lines of the music, with the accordion playing two parts (one per manual). 

Bach wrote The Art of Fugue during the 1740s, one of a number of 'summation' works which he produced late in his life. It examines the possibilities of fugue, with 14 of them all written out in open score with the possibilities of the instrumental rendering unspecified. It was probably a keyboard work (the open score format was used in the 17th and 18th centuries for this purpose), but this degree of uncertainty along with other imprecise aspects of the final work (Bach died before the first publication in 1751) have meant that musicians feel free to explore the possibilities of the piece in a variety of ways.

The result on this disc is surprisingly satisfying, partly because the accordion functions somewhat like a mini-organ, but also because all three players perform with a sense of style. There is an historically informed element to the playing even though the accordion is most definitely a modern instrument. The basic instrument dates from the 19th century but many technical improvements were made in the 20th century and Lhermet plays a 2015 model by the Italian firm of Pigini which was founded in 1946.

The players vary the instrumentation throughout the piece, keeping the combination of timbres fluid and the absence of Bach's own instrumentation frees them up somewhat whilst Lhermet comments that he has "always had the feeling that this music was cramped under the fingers of a single performer, as if it were imprisoned." The result is to explore the colourful richness of Bach's inventions through the medium of their instruments, and the joy is quite how those instruments blend with and complement each other.

The modern accordion is an equal temperament instrument, so inevitably they have to play in equal temperament though both string players are able to bend intervals occasionally. And they play at the Baroque pitch of A 415 Hz, which entailed transposing the entire accordion part down a semi-tone so that the strings play in D minor and the accordion in C sharp minor!

I loved that way timbres and textures are varied imaginatively, so that an instrument will not necessarily take the obvious line, some drop out from movements and they vary colours by changing registers in the instruments, so the viol is not always on the bass part for instance, and in the canons they use different combinations of instruments.

But more than this, it is the sheer musicality of the playing which makes it a joy. This is real Baroque chamber music with three players breathing and thinking together. They have worked hard on the piece, wanting to make it 'everyday' so that it was two years worth of work before their first concert.

This is not a dogmatic account of the music, but it is an intelligent and sympathetic one. Bach performance is inevitably about an element of transcription and re-creation, we are rarely if ever able to perform his music with exactly the forces that he himself used or envisaged. And he was a wonderfully practical musician, showing a willingness to rework music for the forces available.

The group plays the first thirteen Contrapunctus movements in a sequence, followed by the four Canons and then the final, unfinished, Contrapunctus. Unlike many performers, they don't attempt to finish it and simply break off. As if the music were continuing elsewhere, just out of earshot. And we can perhaps imagine Bach and two of his cronies playing away, the great master on the accordion of course!

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) - The Art of Fugue
Les inAttendus - Vincent Lhermet (accordion), Marianne Muller (seven-string bass viol), Alice Pierot (baroque violin)
Recorded at La Courroie (Entraigues-sur-la-Sorgue), 16-19 December 2019
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905313 1 CD 

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