Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Gang’s Not There

courtesy of Naxos of America

Almost two weeks ago the Austrian Gramola label released one of the more curious albums I have encountered this year. While it is not immediately evident from the the cover, shown above, the full title of the album is The Art of Fugue and The Art of Improvisation. The cover, on the other hand, states the title as only The Art of Fugue, listened under the name of Johann Sebastian Bach, which is likely to mislead a browser into thinking that this is a recording of Bach’s BWV 1080, a collection of fifteen fugues and four canons, all in the key of D minor and all based, in one way or another, on a common subject.

That casual browser might then wonder why the album cover has a photograph of five guys sitting on a farm tractor. They are the performers on the album, members of a quintet called the Austrian Art Gang. I have not yet been able to align all of the faces with names; but the members of the group and their instruments are as follows: Klaus Dickbauer (saxophones and clarinets), Daniel Oman (guitar), Wolfgang Heiler (bassoon), Thomas Wall (cello), and Wolfram Derschmidt (bass). This is a group that has tried to plant itself (as long as we have the farm metaphor) in that boundary region where jazz and chamber music overlap.

The album itself is based on a plan by Gunar Letzbor to present a concert performance of BWV 1080. Those who know their Bach know that he probably did not intend this material for performance. Indeed, he died while he was working on the score; and what exists of the score says nothing about instrumentation.

Nevertheless, there have been any number of performers who espouse the precept that, if it is written in music notation, then it is meant to be played; and there are a generous number of recordings out there of interpretations of the notation in a variety of instrumental settings. Some 40 years before Letzbor began to hatch his plans for a concert, Jordan Hall at the New England Conservatory of Music hosted a concert performance of BWV 1080. I must confess that I have forgotten the instrumentation; but I do remember that David Hughes, Professor of Music at Harvard University, who was on my thesis committee, reacted to this event by saying “Who wants to listen to an entire evening of D minor?”

Letzbor did not know about Hughes’ misgivings; but, in his notes for the booklet included with this album, he wrote about wanting to give Bach’s score “a special and inspiring interpretation.” This was how he came to recruit the Austrian Art Gang to play in the concert he was planning. The idea behind his project seemed to be that, if Bach had not intended what he had committed to paper as scores for performance, why not treat them as “charts” for a jazz combo?

Why not, indeed? Those who have been following me since my time at may recall The New Goldberg Variations, released in August of 2015, on which violinist Zoë Black played a new polyphonic voice added to those written Bach for his BWV 988 “Goldberg” variations. Given that Chindamo was a jazz pianist, there is a good chance that Black’s additions to the performance had grown out of improvisation exercises; and, even if the violin part was eventually committed to notation, the impression remained that it was a product of “jamming.” For that matter, my own student days had been strongly influenced by Lalo Schifrin’s 1966 studio album The Dissection and Reconstruction of Music From the Past as Performed by the Inmates of Lalo Schifrin's Demented Ensemble as a Tribute to the Memory of the Marquis De Sade, subjecting ten compositions from the Baroque period to some thoroughly enjoyable jamming.

Unfortunately, in the face of such predecessors, the Austrian Art Gang never quite delivers the right stuff. To a great extent the problem can be attributed to the production work of Richard Winter. The instruments played by the Gang are so diverse that Winter often encounters serious difficulties in keeping them in balance. However, just as problematic is that any sense of jamming never seems to progress beyond inserting a familiar riff into some convenient space in Bach’s score. As one might guess, a well-structured fugue (and did Bach ever write one that was not well-structured?) does not allow much space for such an insertion, meaning that most of those riffs show up either as a way to prolong the coda or to defer the initial statement of the fugue subject.

When all is said and done, even the most sympathetic listener is likely to come away from this new recording with a reinforced conviction that BWV 1080 is much more valuable as an object of study than as a vehicle for performance of any kind.

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