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So You Want to Write a Fugue?

New York
Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center
01/14/2022 -  
Larry Bell: 24 Preludes and Fugues for the piano, Op. 156 (N.Y. Premiere)
Carmen Rodríguez-Peralta (No.1-6), Maja Tremiszewska (No.7-12), Jennifer Elowsky-Fox (No.13-18), John McDonald (No.19-24) (piano)

J. McDonald, J. Elowsky-Fox, L. Bell, M. Tremiszewska, C. Rodríguez-Peralta (© Roman Markowicz)

It took Dmitri Shostakovich from Oct. 10, 1950 till February 25, 1951 to compose his monumental cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues Op. 87 written especially for the famed Russian pianist Tatyana Nikolayeva. Thus one could be astonished to learn that Mr. Larry Bell needed only one month, January of 2019, to complete most of his cycle of 24 Preludes and Fugues. If that’s true it is an amazing accomplishment! In the past 70 years, neither Shostakovich nor Mr. Bell was the only composer who undertook a similarly monumental task: among Russian composers alone there are Rodion Shchedrin, Sergey Slonimsky, and Nicolai Kapustin who have also composed analogous collections.

In the program booklet, Mr. Bell explained how his huge work, well over two hours in length, developed. Similarly to J.S. Bach, he considers his oeuvre as a tool for “the use of and benefit of inquisitive young musicians and for the special diversion of those already well versed in this study.” Upon my first and a bit fragmentary encounter with the cycle on YouTube (the premiere performance of the work with the same forces was given in Boston just before the pandemic struck, and is available there), I was not aware of Mr. Bell’s pronouncement and initially also formed a similar assertion: this “24” could indeed, for young students, be a transition from the few relatively simple Bach fugues in the Well-Tempered Klavier (WTK) into the more advanced ones. Yet toward the end of Mr. Bell’s cycle, there are several fugues that are significantly more complex and thick, almost bringing to mind organ works of Bach or Reger’s equally bulky polyphonic works. So as the pedagogical tools, Mr. Bell’s “24” might still be best utilized by more advanced pupils.

In his cycle, Mr. Bell applied a somewhat unusual compositional process by writing his fugues first and only then accompanying them with preludes supposedly based on motifs derived from the fugue’s subject. As carefully as I tried to listen to that relationship only on a few occasions was it apparent, such as in Prelude and Fugue No.7 in E flat Major. It seems to me that our ears are accustomed to hearing what follows rather than what precedes a given piece of music. Still, it is an intriguing and novel idea.

Mr. Bell’s music is almost totally tonal and even mildly dissonant effects rarely appear. Many of the preludes sound almost as if they came out of the collections of Schumann’s short works or in the mold of Mendelssohn “Hunting Song” (No.7 in A Major), others might be similar to the tonal preludes found in Shostakovich’s set of the “24”. Numerous preludes seem to be modeled on Bach’s own set, others are reminiscent of his inventions. In one we have an interplay of Satie-like harmonies only to be interrupted several times by bursts of technical riffs. There are ones of a humorous nature (in D flat Major), and others in form of a jazzy-sounding ballade. In one we hear whiffs of Fauré, while the beginning of another sounds like Beethoven Sonata Op. 7. Yet another is reminiscent of a Schubert string quartet. And so on. By and large, they are attractive, entertaining, and skillfully written.

The bigger problem in this set lies with the fugues, which are generally less inventive than the preludes: many use short subjects and follow the textbook style of writing and create an impression of not much more than a perfect example of fugue-writing assignment. Sometimes the procedure would just stop and lose continuity only to come back after a moment of rest. Well, at least Mr. Bell was not slavishly following the models. The fugue in D Major has its subject skillfully derived from two Bach themes when the one in F minor achieves a mystical climate akin to someone like Hovhaness. Other fugues – I hesitate to use the word “shamelessly” – simply imitate a given fugue from the WTK I, which still can sound OK... for the fugue. Upon first hearing, I was able only rarely to recognize many of the typical techniques utilized in writing fugues such as stretto, diminution, and augmentation or inversion of the theme. One may argue that it was not the attempt to recreate the Art of Fugue, but a little variety would not hurt either.

It is my experience that even works as great as the “48” of J.S. Bach or “24” of Shostakovich may gain value, if only in the listener’s attention if they are not played as a whole set. Many great Russian pianists, save for the dedicatee of the Shostakovich set, Tatyana Nikolayeva, rarely played more than half a dozen in any given recital. Nowadays, in the time of completeness, we hear pianists traverse the whole sets of Bach Preludes and Fugues, or Partitas, or English Suites, or Beethoven Sonatas or Liszt Etudes. That seems to work only in the case of the greatest of interpreters. It thus seems to me that Mr. Bell may get good mileage out of his set if he allows that it will not be performed complete. Perhaps he would also allow his interpreter to create a selection of the preludes alone, though I realize it sounds like a sacrilege... but a practical sacrilege!

The cycle of the “24” was performed by the same artists who participated in the premiere in 2020. Each of them was tasked with playing six consecutive pairs and it was telling how differently the same piano can sound when played by a performer with a dissimilar approach to the keyboard.

Still, sitting in Merkin Hall and listening to the whole set of Mr. Bell’s Preludes and Fugues at once, I rarely thought of how would I like them to sound and paid less attention to the performance itself, especially in case of the not always terribly inspired and often formulaic fugues. Ms. Carmen Rodríguez-Peralta acquitted herself nicely and offered a clean-cut version of her first six preludes and fugues.

Yet there was no doubt in my mind that the pianist who made the best impression on me was the Polish-born Maja Tremiszewska. She had a nice touch, seemed about the only one interested in producing an attractive sound, and created perhaps the most convincing performances of that evening. In her set, there was one of the best pairs, the one in E flat minor when the prelude quotes almost verbatim Bach’s own in the same key while the fugue has one of the most inventive fast-moving subjects. The fugue in E Major similarly was based on Bach’s theme: at least it was only an inspiration, not plagiarism. Here I was aware that the pianist is trying to create something of pieces that were assigned to her. In her set, there was also one of the nicest preludes, the languid E Major, in my ears evoking leisurely evening under the stars. I thought that it could be a lovely encore piece, one that would have cognoscenti scratching their heads asking: who is the composer?

By contrast, Ms. Jennifer Elowsky-Fox, though buoyant in her approach, was not quite secure in handling the material. The concluding set of six was played by Mr. John McDonald and with some of the fugues such as one in B flat, which is about the most intricate, perhaps because of the density of texture, there was some rough playing. Even in other less complex works, his sound was not very alluring and a bit heavy-handed and relied too much on sustaining pedal. To his credit, he had also in the last few pairs harmonically the most advanced and longest pieces in the collection.

So even if I still insist that playing the complete set of 24 Preludes and Fugues in one sitting is not the best programming idea, in the end, I was glad that I sat through and that two and half hours later my attention didn’t decrease: maybe this music started to grow on me? Mr. Bell skillfully builds the tension in the conclusion of the set with the mighty Prelude and Fugue in B minor, as if to pay homage for the last time to his great predecessor J.S. Bach.

Roman Markowicz



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