J. S. Bach’s Art of Fugue is rarely performed in its entirety, and poses some challenges beyond the merely technical: notably, how to maintain an audience’s interest through more than an hour of music that has an inevitable sameness in motif and form, as well as longish sections with little variation in tempo?
Organists are at an advantage with their instrument’s smorgasbord of tone colours, and Anne Page (no relation) made the most of that advantage in this complete performance of Bach’s late and extraordinary odyssey through the concept of the Fugue.
The Royal Festival Hall instrument is perfectly suited to this music with its clarity and variety, and Page’s registration exploited that to the full. The counterpoint was crystal-clear at almost every moment, essential for this work to make any sense. And although there were wisely few changes in the course of individual Fugues, the shifts between them were sufficient to illuminate just how diverse the contrapuncti really are despite those superficial similarities: for example, underlining the difference between the simple, clean first Fugue and the spiky dotted rhythms of the second.
Especially notable was her use of the reeds: a soft one for the pedal part in III and a growlier one for XI, characterful voices in V, and an ear-splitting appearance for the big beasts in VI – extremely French in effect (Page had mentioned Bach’s admiration for de Grigny in the pre-concert talk).
Equally effective, though, were some less showy choices: particularly the registration for the two rectus/inversus Fugues, with XIII sounding almost like a jaunty trio-sonata movement at times. Employing celeste-style tone in one of the Canons was brave – their wavering tremolo quality, more associated with the most-lush of Romanticism, is normally anathema to Baroque purists. But it worked beautifully.
Page’s virtuosic performance used the tonal range of the RFH organ to shape the work on a broader scale, too. For instance, the soundworld of the Canons toward the end seemed to be intentionally abstract and ethereal before we were brought back to earth for the massive Finale.
If I had one tiny criticism it would be that the registrations of the ‘Contrapunctus XIII’ inversus and the following Canon alla Ottava were perhaps too similar; but it’s a trivial point.
The Art of Fugue as left by Bach stops in mid-air, but Page chose to play a forty-seven-bar completion by the Cambridge art historian Paul Binski (who is also chairman of the Cambridge Academy of Organ Studies, which Page co-founded). You can hear the join between Bach and Binski, but that’s no bad thing, and it’s a very satisfying, workmanlike conclusion which brought the final Fugue to the resolution that such an epic account deserves.
As an encore Page offered the Chorale Prelude ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’, BWV668. Dictated from his deathbed, it was Bach’s final organ work, though not quite his last piece of music; equally importantly, it was included in the first published edition of The Art of Fugue. In this recital’s context, this reminder of the composer’s thorough religious devotion cast an interesting light backward on The Art of Fugue itself, which Anne Page’s reading had already confirmed is no dry intellectual exercise.