Chamber Music Matinée
Bach & Mendelssohn

Tonhalle Zurich, 2015-09-06

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2015-09-08 — Original posting
2016-08-06 — Brushed up for better readability

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Introduction — The Artists

This was the first chamber music matinée of the season 2015/16, in the small hall of the Tonhalle Zurich. The theme of the concert was “Leipzig und Berlin — Bach und sein Wiederentdecker” (“Leipzig and Berlin — Bach and his Rediscoverer”). The concert was given by members of the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich. Most of the musicians are also teachers at the Zurich Conservatory (Zürcher Hochschule der Künste, ZHdK):

The Program

The program featured two parts:

  1. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): Counterpoints 1, 4, 6, 9, and 10 from “The Art of the Fugue”, BWV 1080
  2. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)String Quintet No.1 in A major, op.18

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750): “The Art of the Fugue”, BWV 1080

For the Bach part, only one viola (Michel Rouilly) was needed. So, the ensemble formally was a string quartet. Formally, because the genre of the string quartet was not really invented at Bach’s time (and/or in his environment). Plus, “The Art of the Fugue” has very little to do with string quartet music as we know it. It is Bach’s last composition (composed in Leipzig, at least in parts written down when the composer was blind), a compendium with the quintessence of what defines a fugue.

It’s music that is more abstract or “absolute” than even that of the Second Viennese School. There is one single fugue — “mirror fugue” No.19, not played here — that is annotated “Fuga a 2 Clav.”, i.e., for two keyboard instruments, or for an instrument with two keyboards. Apart from that one exception, there is no indication on instrumentation. There is no annotation, no phrasing, dynamic or tempo indication. Just four voices (or three in some pieces), one voice per line.

With this, it is up to the artists to decide on how to play the music. With the exception of No.19 that I mentioned, it is possible to play this on a single keyboard instrument (harpsichord or organ), with two or four hands. However, it is common to hear this also on string or wind instruments. With this degree of abstraction in the score, all of this can be considered legitimate.

The Selection for this Concert

In this concert, the artists played five pieces (“Counterpoints”), each for four voices, from “The Art of the Fugue”, in the following order:

  • Contrapunctus 1, a 4
    Simple fugue on the theme in its original form (“rectus”)
  • Contrapunctus 4, a 4
    Simple fugue on the inverted main theme (“inversus”)
  • Contrapunctus 6, a 4, “in Stylo Francese”
    Counterfugue about the varied main theme and its inversion in two time values
  • Contrapunctus 9, a 4, alla Duodecima
    Double fugue on a new theme and the main theme
  • Contrapunctus 10, a 4, alla Decima
    Double fugue on a new theme and the varied main theme

The Performance

As mentioned, the four voices were played by a string quartet (two violins, viola, cello), on modern instruments, with modern bows, but without any vibrato. At this level of abstraction, historical instruments and bows would not have added any value. But vibrato would definitely have been a distraction. For baroque music, ubiquitous vibrato is clearly not appropriate anyway. That’s a practice that only emerged in the early 20th century.

The playing was unexcited, unspectacular / inconspicuous, mostly portato (not too legato, not too staccato) — entirely to the advantage of Bach’s music. It allowed for an “unobstructed view on the construction of the 5 fugues”. Adding some more variation in the articulation might have been an option, but that would also have added distraction. Bach’s intent was to show how fugues work, what level of complexity is possible within the construction of a fugue. Even though the compositions are reduced to their “pure substance”.

“Reading” Fugues “on-the-Fly”

To experience this, the listener must follow several individual individual voices at once, watching out for the “subject(s)” — theme(s) — of the fugue, often also its comes, etc. The term “comes” is Latin and stands for “companion”, a secondary voice that forms an integral part of some fugue themes.

In the first counterpoint, this is not too hard, as the fugue theme always appears in its original form. However, in other counterpoints in this collection, the theme max show up as expansion (using longer note values) or diminution (using shorter note values), in its inversion (upside down, mirror fugues), or even backwards (Krebs-Fuge, i.e., “crab fugue”).

It turns out that such listening / reception is substantially harder than listening to a typical, classic or romantic string quartet. The latter are often partly homophonic (melody + accompaniment), featuring a variety of melodies, moods, tempo, dynamics, articulation. Bach’s fugues work with a given theme or a set of themes. All voices are of equal importance (over time, not in a specific moment). There is very little variation in articulation and dynamics, very little build-up / evolution, except for a simple start with the presentation of the theme(s), and the texture getting denser. The texture often gets rather complex towards the end. A fugue typically ends with the “densest moments”, often with a stretto segment (“Engführung“), where multiple instances of the theme(s) appear simultaneously.

Not for the Casual Listener!

As an inexperienced listener one can of course give in to the temptation to “just listen”. But then, the music will soon sound rather uniform, unstructured, if not boring! The temptation to “let the music just pass by” is definitely there. Even more experienced listeners may not be able to capture all instances of a fugue’s themes and their inter-relations in a single pass. Even having a score at hand may not help immediately. But it pays to listen into the web of voices, be it only to admire Bach’s ability to construct such dense textures in his mind.

One should think that Bach’s polyphonic constructs are complicated enough. But on top of that, Bach’s compositions often include hidden, complex numerical relations / symbolisms that have little or no relevance for the understanding of the music.

The five fugues received a good, valid interpretation, giving a plain “view” onto Bach’s fugue constructs, unobstructed by personal “embellishments” such as ornamentation, extra(-vagant) articulation, drama and dynamics, etc. — though maybe a little more variation in (e.g.,) articulation between (not within) the pieces would have helped / made it easier for novice listeners?

A Note on the Playing

Intuitively, one might think that playing without vibrato is easier / simpler. The contrary is the case: without the vibrato (which introduces modulations in both pitch and amplitude), the smallest impurities in the intonation will stand out and may be obvious even to the inexperienced ear. With Bach’s fugues, where all voices are of equal value almost by definition, all artists are facing that same challenge. But the musicians definitely did very well in that respect.

In this half of the concert, the hardest part was the very beginning of the first fugue, where the second violin had to introduce the original fugue theme — alone, without any accompaniment. No accompaniment means no harmonies — yet, in that simple melody, every single interval can be rated / judged, even without “perfect pitch hearing”. Attempts to apply corrections while playing can easily make things worse.  I believe I could feel the strain that this moment caused with the second violinist. I think she did well, not showing insecurities. Still, my personal (momentary) preference would have been a very slightly different pitch with one or two notes.

Tuning / Tonal Purity

A Note on tonal purity: with keyboard instruments, the strings are tuned to a specific pitch, according to a chosen tuning scheme, such as equal temperament tuning, or one of the Werckmeister temperaments. However, with instruments from the violin family (in particular, non-fretted instruments) the strings are tuned in pure (Pythagorean) intervals (pure fifths with the instruments in this concert).

But the intonation of all tones other than empty strings is actually variable. For example, an artist may decide to play lead tones a tad higher, in order to amplify its lead tone characteristics. Or he/she may decide to play pure thirds, in order to make a melody sound “right” in a given style. All this of course under the condition that this does not create a conflict with the accompaniment / other voices. Hence the use of words such as  “preference” or “taste” in the paragraphs above. Strictly speaking, on string instruments, there is no single, correct or perfect pitch.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847): String Quintet No.1 in A major, op.18

The second part of the concert could barely have been more different. The very last composition by Bach, the quintessence of his art in polyphony, and as abstract & absolute as music can possibly be, still reverberated in the listener’s mind. And now we heard a composition by the young Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. He wrote his String Quintet No.1 in A major, op.18 in 1826 (in Berlin at that time), later revised it in 1832. It’s a youth- and joyful composition that (after the Bach) felt like a breeze of fresh spring air.

The Performance

Not just the mood, the atmosphere in the music changed, but also the playing style, in that the (now 5) players switched to a limited, “natural” amount of vibrato. Mendelssohn’s composition is rather virtuosic in many parts. The young composer had access to excellent musicians for performing his music. This quintet often reminded of the virtuosic demands (especially in rapid passages) that are also present in his piano concerti. The ensemble did maybe not feel as homogeneous as a long-grown, seasoned chamber music ensemble, in terms of interpretation more than in sound, but overall, the musicians from the Tonhalle Orchestra did well in this music: clean playing, good intonation, good coordination. Maybe sometimes they lacked the ultimate dynamic balance and unanimity.

I. Allegro con moto

The first movement (Allegro con moto) is a lovely, serene piece, maybe with a (typically Mendelssohnian) slightly melancholic note, lyrical. The musicians played it with light, never aggressive articulation. The melody is mostly in the first violin, floating above a light, mostly staccato accompaniment; the other voices get to play melody fragments at best: joy- and playful music, overall. It’s a movement in regular sonata form, with repeat signs around the exposition. However, it lacks the clear difference in character between the first and second theme. Therefore, the form may not be very obvious to the inexperienced listener. Still, the development part stands out with its faster figurations, culminating in a con fuoco section in the center. The movement ends pp, vanishing into nothing, as if a butterfly was silently tumbling away, hiding in a sea of flowers…

II. Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto

The second movement, Intermezzo: Andante sostenuto, switches to a slightly more earnest mood, while remaining in the light, friendly overall attitude. It features melodic sections, where the first violin, alternating with the cello, is expanding into long, wonderful melodies. But then, there are also sections where motivic work and / or rapid passagework dominate. The melody returns, later over trembling accompaniment, and the movement ends in a serene mood, again pp, just like its predecessor, but with two pizzicati: charming!

III. Scherzo: Allegro di molto

At last, in the third movement, a Scherzo: Allegro di molto, the linkage between Bach (Leipzig) and Mendelssohn (Berlin) came to fruition: a fugue! Not as abstract, theoretical and serious as Bach’s opus summum in that area, for sure, but a vivid piece, the fugue theme with rapid semiquaver movements, sempre staccato: it is often ghastly, but with intermittent legato accompaniment, in the center there are grumbling interjections by cello and violas. Also this movement disappears into pp. The playing here was virtuosic, focused, the coordination excellent. My only mild criticism is that the above bass interjections could maybe have had a little more sound, rather than being mostly grumbling noise.

IV. Allegro vivace

The last movement, Allegro vivace, is a bright, fun piece, almost more Scherzo-like than the preceding movement. It is in in 3/4 time, but semiquaver and semiquaver triplet movements dominate: very virtuosic, the most demanding part of this work, with syncopated “fun sections”. It is alternating again with wonderful, singing melodies. Despite the stretto/fugato-like segments, it no longer alludes to Bach: in many ways it is a movement with almost Haydn-like spirituoso character and serenity. That spirit was almost infectuous. It lightly released the audience into a Sunday afternoon, as a welcome substitute for the missing sunshine!


For following “The Art of the Fugue” by Bach, I was relying on the Bärenreiter pocket score (Bärenreiter TP 26), edited and issued by Hermann Diener (1956).

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