Johann Sebastian Bach composed The Art of Fugue at a time of little appeal for the specialty. With several string quartet iterations already heard in Boston this year, Paavali Jumppanen offered the archetype on Calderwood’s Steinway concert grand. The young Finnish pianist was among several who had traveled to Hamburg and to have selected that very piano for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where a sold-out house Sunday afternoon attested to Jumppanen’s status as favorite.
How did the pianist do with Bach? Recall this is the same pianist who recently played the monstrously challenging Boulez sonatas at the Museum and whose recording of that composer’s complex, cerebral works drew from The Guardian “the best recorded disc of Boulez’s piano music so far.” Recall, too, that Bach had gone blind and died before fully completing the work. After his death, the two published editions of the score remarkably sold only some 30 copies.
What a marvel then, that today’s listener would stay tuned to Bach’s vast network of imitations on a single theme (technically dubbed a subject) that undergoes configurations of all conceivable sorts: upside down, backwards, with variations, at different speeds—and all piled on top of one another, as in stretto. Lasting about 80 minutes, Die Kunst der Fuge, while bounded to the key of D minor, covers far more tonal ground, and possibly beyond, than easily imagined. For Glenn Gould, The Art of Fugue is about “process,” allowing for “no attractions or distractions.”
In recreating Bach’s masterful sonic calculus as opposed to Boulez’s, Jumppanen chose to omit fugues XII and XIII. His interspersing the four canons, also a part of the set, amidst the fugues, injected wanted contrast. He concluded his kunstlich traversal with the chorale setting of Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (When we are in the deepest need), which the composer dictated as he lay dying, before completing Fugue XIV, the last of the set. It is a triple fugue where Bach spells out his name in musical motto, or as subject. High drama unfolded as Jumppanen came to its last notes with a full stop and left a profound silence. Then, he began the chorale, “When we are in greatest need,” which Carl Philipp Emanuel added to the first edition of Die Kunst der Fuge. In the chorale, Jumppanen serenely meditated in a heavenward weave of melodic threads, then graciously submitting the chorale tune itself.
Staccato and legato forged subjects and countersubjects radiated in reverence at the outset with Fugue I, or Contrapunctus I as CPE Bach wrote in his posthumous edition. Number III preceded II, the former taking to a detached style of articulation and the latter working an overall crescendo from beginning to end. Number IV had the right shifts to lightness, while V would end with strikingly punctuated chords. Canon at the 8ve intervened between the two; its pronouncements of “calls and responses” for this listener summoned still more complexity to the two-part writing. Noticeable in VI in French style with dotted rhythm, Jumppanen gave the even 16th notes dots as well. Dynamic levels increased with the Canon at the 12th and certain restlessness appeared with IX.
After intermission, Jumppanen continued with considerable attentiveness to detail. Alternately, he allowed in his natural instincts toward shaping the whole. Together, these approaches often clouded rather than clarified Bach’s craft. Most disappointing, though, were the stoutly percussive statements of the subjects, or “flagships,” as the pianist referred to them during his opening mini-lecture. Wanting, too, was more harmonic understanding of the vertical and less emphasis on the horizontal or contrapuntal.
A surprise began the afternoon, as Gardner’s former main music man Scott Nickrenz made his first public performance at the piano in duet with Paavali Jumppanen. As a nod to the ongoing celebration of Leonard Bernstein, the undoubtedly cute “Just in Time” for three hands felt quite out of character at this big Bach fugue fest.