Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge – Keller Quartett (ECM New Series 1652)


Johann Sebastian Bach
Die Kunst der Fuge

Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Ottó Kertész cello
Recorded May 1997, Altes Stadttheater Eichstätt
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

In the end, we self-perceiving, self-inventing, locked-in mirages are little miracles of self-reference.
–Douglas R. Hofstadter, I Am a Strange Loop

One is tempted, perhaps, to experience the fugue as a puzzle. In that puzzle are strings of numbers unraveling from a central rope, even as they spin into one. Yet when listening to Bach’s Art thereof, and especially in the Keller Quartett’s sensitive hands, we find that even our best similes are weak and arbitrary, for this music, this expression of internal power, is alive. By no means universal, it takes a different form every time to every listener. We in turn can take comfort in knowing that the final triple fugue was never finished, for into it the composer wove his signature B-A-C-H (B-flat-A-C-B) theme, as if signing off on a lifelong document. Thus is The Art of Fugue an “emancipatory work” in the estimation of Hans-Klaus Jungheinrich, who in his accompanying essay goes to great lengths to demythologize the unrealistic pedestals upon which the work has been placed. The instrumentation was never resolutely determined, though it was likely intended for the nascent pianoforte. The string quartet presents a compelling solution. In this respect the Kellers push the envelope, varying tempi considerably and in doing so point us to a humbling truth: namely, that if this was to be Bach’s most lasting statement, it had to be invisible.

One with a deeper background may train a musicological magnifying glass to every weaving line, but these ears are more interested in the effect than the cause. And of that effect, I am at pains to say anything worthwhile. Although its movements comprise a moving target of speeds and densities, a constant hum runs through them. It is something we feel rather than hear. Cellist Ottó Kertész is particularly well suited, evoking the slightly metallic continuo of yore with a tinge of intangibility. (This, I think, explains the curious production, which favors distance and cavernousness—it is not historically informed, but seeks to inform history.) That being said, the music is nothing if not expressible. It might very well be Bach’s swan song, and therefore the culmination of his craft, but I prefer to hear it as a homecoming, a clearing of clouds to let fall the darkness that nourishes all artists, paling into the light that embraces them once they’re gone.

One day, we encounter this music and it sings to us. But then the voices stop mid-phrase, as the Kellers have preserved them, and suddenly the galaxy unravels, leaving us floating in the stagnant pool of all silence. Listen, and you know there is truth in the number:


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