The Art of the Fugue
Despite a late legend given to an unfortunate appendix to the work (the chorale “Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein” dictated on the death-bed), The Art of the Fugue was composed a year before Bach’s death. We shall therefore never know – another mystery in a series of enigmas – if the work was mutilated or left unfinished.
Philosopher’s stone, Requiem, theological treatise? Rarely has a masterpiece been identified with a destiny to the point of being confused with it. The Art of the Fugue is like Fermat’s celebrated theorem: these are for Bach and Fermat what the philosopher’s stone and immortality are for Fulcanelli and Nagarjuna. Hundreds of devotees in vain follow the tracks of their intellectual masters: the simplicity of Fermat’s proofs has never been rediscovered, no more than the ending of The Art of the Fugue. For an attempt to complete the last fugue stems from a misunderstanding: one only proves oneself, out of devotion for the composer, an iconoclast as far as the work itself is concerned. The proposed versions? So much sacrilege with which some have wished to fill in silence, plug emptiness, out of piety towards the composer, frustrated – supposedly at least – by the absence of a vigorous final cadence.
The Art of the Fugue is music that has no charm. There is no theatricality there, no amusement, at least as Pascal defines it. There are no more grimaces than a corpse or a mineral would make. There are no anecdotes unless it be B.A.C.H., a signature tune, a distress signal from before the dissolution in the final great silence.
I started to write these lines in order to reply to a festival’s question: why do I play this work? I am simply thankful not to have had to reply in my heart of hearts to the question: why should I not play it? It would have been too easy: unplayable because unfathomable. The Art of the Fugue should have remained in a state of virtuality, like its inexistent ending, an ode to silence.
Vieru plays the Liszt Sonata for all it is worth. I found his approach highly reminiscent of the 1929 performance of Cortot, with whom he shares a tremendous feel for coloristic effects. How different this is from fanatical perfectionism of Pollini and Brendel, but for me, it goes nearer the core of the music.
Perhaps the most important element of Vieru�s playing that ties him to such golden age pianists as Cortot (and distinguishes him from people like Pollini and Brendel) is his integration of tempo variation into his dynamic phrasing. Vieru will speed up and put on the brakes as the music compels him to do so. This interpretive device is so organically achieved that it is not readily apparent to a listener that does not know the score, or has not heard the music played in the more rigid manner of most contemporary pianist. Vieru�s style is utterly natural.
Vieru brings this approach gracefully to the gentle Beethoven Bagatelles, producing a lovely performance of this quirky little masterpiece.
The massive Bach is certainly made expressive by Vieru�s broad, romantic reading. This is a live performance, and one can only imagine the hypnotic spell this music must have cast, as seventy-five minute after the somber start, Vieru projected the final, incomplete lines of Bach�s deathbed summation of his life�s work into the still air.