The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080
Harmonia Mundi HMM 905313 70:34 mins
What a chameleon is the accordion! In its various manifestations it can provide the anchoring soul of tango (bandoneon); in the hands of a virtuoso, make light work of the trickiest Scarlatti sonata; or as here, paired with baroque violin and bass viol, lull the casual listener into believing a viol consort has alighted on JS Bach’s mighty testament to strategic counterpoint: the Art of Fugue. Composed in open score with no performance indications, it’s a work, moreover, that invites combinations well beyond the Thomaskantor’s wildest imagining – an Everest scaled by string quartet to electronica, saxophone quartet to symphony orchestra.
As an exhaustive study of the possibilities inherent in a single 12-note theme worked out across 13 completed fugues, four canons and an incomplete Contrapunctus – the latter the subject of much scholarly debate – Bach’s Art sounds remarkably ‘at home’ in Les inAttendus’s absorbing traversal. To preserve a Baroque A=415 pitch Vincent Lhermet’s accordion transposes everything down to C sharp minor, and illuminating care has been taken over the division of the material between the unlikely trio.
After the sombre gravitas of Contrapunctus I, the second’s dotted rhythms sport an almost sly, furtive quality, while the ‘stile francese’ of Contrapunctus VI quietly scintillates. Just occasionally a tad more variety of articulation and emotional drama could have further sharpened the music’s profile (especially in Contrapunctus XIV, shaped with valedictory poignancy); but Les inAttendus always find humanity where others merely radiate austerity and artifice.
In all, this is one of the most personable accounts of Bach’s magnum opus on disc.