The art of fugue

SP DirstMatthew Dirst, Bach Art of Fugue, Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012
Calgary Organ Festival
Eckardt-Gramatté Hall

One of the highlights of this year’s Calgary Organ Festival was the programming of Bach’s final masterpiece, The Art of Fugue.

American organist Matthew Dirst gave a wonderful display of the Ronald B. Bond Bach Organ (Ahrend Orgelbau) as part of the series of recitals held throughout the city as is customary for this annual festival. This was an event not to be missed, as Bach’s last work, including the final fugue left incomplete at his death, was also performed here in its posthumously completed form.

The performance of Art of Fugue is a rare opportunity indeed, given the technical challenges involved. The work was originally composed in open score, in three or four voices, a typical procedure for the time given that Bach’s contemporaries likely would have read music in that manner.

When the skill died out soon after the Baroque period, the work languished until resurrected in the early twentieth century by German scholarship. This has helped the work to endure through time as a kind of ‘how to’ of fugal writing, from the most simple type of fugue, to ones with and without regularly recurring countersubjects, fugues in a variety of styles, ranging from the French style (Contrapunctus six) to stretto fugues (Contrapunctus 5-7).

The work also includes different types of counterpoint such as invertible fugues at the tenth (Contrapunctus ten) and the twelfth (Contrapunctus 9, my favourite) and concluding with multiple-subject fugues (double fugues, Contrapunctus 9 and 10; triple fugues, Contrapunctus 8 and 11).

It was a conspicuous pleasure to hear the virtuosic Mr. Dirst, both an organ and harpsichord international prize winner, musicologist and professor of music at Houston University, as he capably navigated the Parnassus of contrapuntal composition with considerable aplomb.

At no time, while giving one very satisfying account of each contrapunctus and canon after another, did Mr. Dirst seem to ever break a sweat, or struggle even in the slightest at some of the more egregiously complex contrapuntal sections. Each fugue was played at the appropriate tempo, and with perfect articulation, always allowing the personality of an individual fugue to shine.

Even the canons, divided among the two halves of the concert’s contrapuncti and played in order of difficulty, seemed to yield new insights. The simple fugues were given appropriate treatment, moving to bourdons in the second fugue, but most of the organ’s more piquant colours were suppressed throughout and instead Mr. Dirst kept to a conservative registration, preferring to eschew musical adventurousness in favour of a clear contrapuntal accounting.

The double and triple fugues were a pleasure to hear, rendered carefully and with appropriate space in order to allow each subject to stand out on its own. There was only one occasion in which he required another keyboardist, and that was for the mirror fugues in contrapunctus twelve, in which the technical demands of the work transcended the possibilities of two-handed execution.

All in all, this was a magnificent highlight of the festival and left the audience wanting more. One can only hope that the Festival’s organizers will program something similar in the Baroque organ repertoire next year.

— Stephan Bonfield


The Conservatory hosts Organ@Noon concerts on the second Thursday of each month, free to attend — and bring your lunch. Events calendar

Like to play a little Bach? Check out our Purcell Ensemble, historically informed performance class.

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