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:

One.

Alfred Schnittke/Dmitri Shostakovich: Lento (ECM New Series 1755)

 

Lento

Keller Quartett
András Keller violin
János Pilz violin
Zoltán Gál viola
Judit Szabó violoncello
Alexei Lubimov piano
Recorded June 2000
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The Piano Quintet of Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998) begins where many chamber works might end: with the closing of eyes. It is behind these lids, the shadowy backdrops of which form the projection screen of our deepest mortalities, that the music remains. Even the Waltz of the second movement is a doppelgänger, its higher strings haunting the periphery like an epidemic. Such profound banalities are what make this a harrowing, if somnambulate, work. The piano’s role is very much subdued, providing regularity where there is none to be had. Rarely proclamatory, it reveals its deepest secrets when, at the end of the Andante, the sustain pedal is depressed merely for its metronomic effect in want of note value. The album takes its title from the fourth movement, a viscous, writhing creature that never shows its face. After enduring so many scars, the final Moderato tiptoes ever so gracefully around the fallen shards, gathering from each a snatch of light—just enough for a handful.

Schnittke very much admired the late works of Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), of which the String Quartet No. 15, op. 144 cuts deepest. Completed in 1974, two years before Schnittke’s quintet, Shostakovich’s last quartet of a planned 24 consists of six almost seamless Adagios. At 37 minutes, it is the longest of his quartets, if not also the most ponderous. A few shocks interrupt us, as the forced pizzicati of the Serenade, but otherwise we are lulled in the deepening shade of a wilted tree that sways as it ever did at the hands of an unseen breeze. Ironically, the Nocturne provides the earliest intimations of sunrise, throughout which the cello smiles through its tears. A bitter smile, to be sure, but an unforgettable change of expression in the music’s otherwise tense features. We are allowed a single breath before the Funeral March that follows. A tough lyricism pervades, as in cello’s repeat soliloquies, all of which primes us for the cathartic Epilogue, in which is to be had a forgotten treasure, a time capsule buried in childhood and only now unearthed.

Although this is an album drawn in morbidity—Schnittke’s quintet finds its genesis in the death of the composer’s mother, while Shostakovich’s quartet premiered months before his own—it is supremely life-affirming, each work a breathing testament to indomitable creativities. The Keller Quartett, joined by Alexei Lubimov for the Schnittke, lay themselves bare at every turn, wrenching out by far the most selfless performances thus far recorded of this complementary pair.