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ANGELA HEWITT on the instrument it was written for.’ But what about Trevor Pinnock’s unavoidably brilliant 1979 recording of the Goldberg Variations, where compositional nuts-andbolts, tuning and keyboard mechanism are all heard singing from the same hymn sheet? ‘He makes it come alive, great, but that doesn’t mean that the piano can’t offer other possibilities. Couperin wrote dedicated harpsichord music; Scarlatti’s music demands that harpsichords clang. But Bach remade violin concertos as keyboard concertos – and then the same material turns up vocally. His music had a different relationship to ideas of instrumentation.’

A manuscript page from the first edition of The Art of Fugue, complete with floral decoration

We talk about the conditions under which Bach created The Art of  Fugue, nearing the end of his life and with his health deteriorating. It’s easy to forget, I say, that in the Leipzig of the early- to mid-1700s no concept existed of a concert – an event for which people bought tickets to hear performers play abstract chamber music. It takes a leap of imagination to empathise with a culture of music-making so radically different from our own. The disconnect between then and now is even deeper, Hewitt

Reinhard Goebel has thrown doubt (and relished doing so) on everyone’s assumption that The Art of Fugue is a keyboard work. Bach’s interweaving lines, he says, demand leaps that are beyond the possible. ‘Well, I’ve proved him wrong – so there!’ comes Hewitt’s instantaneous reply. ‘It is true that some chords need to be broken and, for instance, at the end of No 6, I hold the pedal point on the middle pedal; but CPE Bach wrote that everything in it was made to be played on a keyboard and that it was possible. The fact it was written in open score was not unusual. For very complicated, contrapuntal music, to make the voices clear for people studying it, that was the norm. I read somewhere that if you wrote out fugues by Mendelssohn and Beethoven in the same way, as great as they are, the voice leading is never as it is in Bach. There isn’t a single point in Bach where a voice gets lost or doesn’t finish well.’

Thinking about structure, I ask whether there’s a temptation to fixate on individual points of contrapuntal engineering that seem remarkable in themselves, thereby forgetting that each of those moments must also fit into the whole fugue – and that each fugue is itself part of Bach’s overarching 90-minute construct? ‘Bach would have been thrilled but amazed at the idea of anyone playing The Art of Fugue all at once,’ Hewitt says. ‘In his analysis, Donald Tovey points out that the original version of No 2 ends in the dominant. But you can’t end there of course and that is a pretty big clue that Bach saw at least some of them in sequence.’ Are there particular markers throughout the set – points of arrival and take-off – that need to be observed? ‘In the Well-Tempered Clavier, Bach is obviously thinking in groups of four and here, likewise, the first four fugues make a very satisfying group. There are no complicated games. He inverts the subject and that’s about it – no stretto [simultaneously heard superimposed versions of the fugue’s subject] or augmentation [note values lengthened] or diminution [note values compressed]. In No 5 we hear the first stretto; Nos 8, 9, 10 and 11 are double and triple fugues; Nos 12 and 13 are mirror fugues [an inverted reflection of a fugue heard running against the thing itself]. And when you play the piece as a whole, the challenge is to find the character of each fugue and bring that out. Bach gives it to you, it’s there, but identifying it requires a great deal of hard work.’

suggests: musicians were trained as composers, improvisers and interpreters, different aspects of the same craft. When Bach was called to the court of Frederick the Great, improvisation was the order of the day. An evening of ‘greatest hits’ – a French  Suite followed by Partita No 4 – would have been an anathema: who wants to hear old music? Bach would have created on the spot. His cantatas were for church; his secular cantatas were performed in Zimmermann’s Coffee House. But Bach’s keyboard music was essentially his private compositional realm, a space to explore and experiment. No one was listening. He could do what he liked – 90 minutes of D minor included.

Composers dreaming up crazy concepts. Scores calculated as much as composed. The ivory tower mentality might not be such a bad thing after all. The Art of Fugue raises issues normally considered more pertinent to the music of Xenakis or Ferneyhough. Hewitt has discussed stretto, mirror fugues, augmentation and diminution – but how acutely are listeners supposed to hear these hairline mathematical relationships? ‘I can’t say I understand the mathematics, especially in the mirror fugues, but then again who does?’ Hewitt explains. ‘Look, The Art of Fugue was never a bestseller – the first edition sold 30 copies. But when I play it live I begin with a talk. I give audiences something to listen out for in each fugue.

‘Success in performance all comes down to the clarity you can bring to the voices. Ninety-five per cent of the work involved in learning the piece is figuring out the fingering; without intelligent fingering you’re lost. When I do masterclasses I tell pianists to learn four-part fugues in five ways – once bringing out only the soprano, once bringing only the alto, once the tenor, once the bass. Only then are you ready to work towards a fifth balance, which is what you will play in the end, balancing the parts according to what you want to hear, not just bringing out one voice. And then you must think about tempo. Nos 10 and 11 have strikingly similar subjects. Both begin with a rest on the first beat and have a similar style – and so you can’t play them at the same tempo or mood. You have to make bold decisions.’

And those decisions can hurt. Her massage therapist knows when she’s been playing only Bach, Hewitt laughs. Liszt, throwing octaves around, is about aerobics, but Bach is about control, she says. ‘It’s rather like sitting there for an hour-anda-half chanting “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers” and hoping that you won’t stumble,’ she says. ‘The music all lies


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