The Keller Quartet: Thought-provoking in Die Kunst der Fuge

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach:Keller Quartet (András Keller, Zsófia Környei (violins), Zoltán Gál (viola), Judit Szabó (cello)), Hall One, Kings Place, London, 1.5.2013 (MB)

Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV 1080

How to perform The Art of Fugue? Period zealots sound even more ridiculous here than usual when they foam at the mouth concerning their beloved ‘authenticke’ practices, entirely missing the point of a work almost beyond performance, which nevertheless comes to life as much as in the performative act and its reception as in reading of the score. Post-Romantics that we are – and those who rebel, only end up being all the more so – we love the idea of an almost Platonic Idea of the artwork; yet we want and need to hear it. The piano works very well; the best performance I have yet heard came in a superlative Wigmore Hall recital from Konstantin Lifschitz. Orchestral renditions have their place too; Hermann Scherchen demands to be heard. In an otherwise highly questionable programme note – taken, it seems, from the Keller Quartet’s ECM recording – by Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, the writer, enthusiastic, as he doubtless had to be for performance by string quartet nevertheless sounded a note of caution, in that the formation is to our ears so strongly associated with Classical-Romantic repertoire from Haydn onwards. Yet the quartet offers notable advantages in terms of clarity; moreover, associations with later music, even later forms, offer their own advantages.

It seems that the Keller Quartet’s relative – though far from total – abstinence from vibrato may be understood in this light. (I wonder what they do when pairing Bach with Kurtág: is contrast intended, does Bach acquire a more Kurtág-like sound, or does Kurtág veer towards the low-vibrato end of the scale?) At any rate, the initial sound took some getting used to, though that process was certainly assisted, even within Contrapunctus I, by the leavening of tone, especially in first violin flourishes from András Keller, by a more generous approach. Taken as a whole, the fugue was considerably but not exaggeratedly inflected: a compromise perhaps, between allegedly ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, but with virtues of its own. The second and fourth fugues, being performed considerably quicker, more rhythmically propulsive, stood in contrast to the first and third, offering variety as well as continuity. Contrapunctus III benefited from further loosening of the low-vibrato noose, followed winningly by a more dance-like Contrapunctus IV. The opening second violin entry of Contrapunctus V managed to impress upon us that this might in some ways be considered a new section of the work: something, doubtless, to do with the fact that the subject is first heard in the second voice, but not only that. ‘Style’ of course played a part in performance of its successor: ‘Contrapunctus VI, a 4, in Stylo Francese’. Characterisation and differentiation convinced; they were certainly present but not overriding, not a substitute for the true musical substance in harmony and counterpoint. Rhythm propelled rather than put on a display. Harmonic shifts in the eighth fugue seemed, quite winningly, to offer ready assimilation into the ‘string quartet tradition’ from which the Kellers had earlier somewhat distanced themselves – ironically, perhaps, given that the second violin remained silent for this Contrapuntus a 3. Perhaps, bearing Mozart in mind, it was actually the string trio that was more operative as an idea, conscious or otherwise. The kinetic energy of Contrapunctus IX brought late Beethoven, if still at something of a remove, to mind. (We know that Beethoven studied this particular work. Indeed, we can surely hear that he did.)

An interval separated the ninth and tenth fugues. Contrapunctus XI again offered links with quartet tradition, ‘progressive’ in an almost Classically developmental sense. Sinuous chromaticism again could not help but make one think of Mozart, whilst well-nigh motivic diminution rivalled, indeed presaged, Beethoven. Canons, partly through rhythm but also through their two-part texture (first violin and cello), brought Bach’s English Suites and Inventions to mind, though their particular character remained. Utterly satisfying in musical terms, one simply wished for them to go on and on – as, in a sense, prophetic of the post-war serialism of Boulez and Stockhausen, they well might. (Not for nothing did Boulez present this very work in his Domaine musical concerts.) It was unclear to me why the third canon marked a return to relative astringency of tone, but its working out suggested a progressive performative choice; that is, greater warmth infused the notes as time went on. Whole epochs of music seemed to resound through the final movement; the golden ages of polyphony summoned before us, as present as Bach’s incalculable legacy to his successors. The appearance of the BACH motif and the ending in midstream (no chorale, let alone completion) turned our attention to the more recent past, to Schoenberg (not least his Op.31 Variations) and indeed to the modernist fragment, whether unfinished (Moses und Aron) or a work that so chillingly stops rather than ends (Wozzeck). Sometimes one wonders why anyone bothered to compose music after Bach; then one hears the imperative to do just that.

Mark Berry