Bach’s ‘Art Of Fugue,’ Luminously Analyzed And Masterfully Played

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Italian pianist Filippo Gorini opened the Vancouver Recital Society’s new season with events centered on J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.

VANCOUVER — Italian pianist Filippo Gorini launched the 2022-23 season of Vancouver Recital Society concerts on Sept. 18 with a performance of J. S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue. To call it a performance doesn’t actually convey the scale of the 27-year-old pianist’s vision, a far more encompassing project that includes outreach activities, a lecture, and a series of filmed discussions about Bach and his relevance to our world.

The Recital Society’s mission has always included the introduction of remarkable young performers to the Vancouver audience. The organization has also demonstrated a willingness to embark on projects more expansive or more focused than a single traditional recital. (Past endeavors include the complete cycle of Shostakovich string quartets by the Jerusalem String Quartet and a multi-performer Schubertiade focused on that composer’s late works).

Gorini’s Art of the Fugue project continues that spirit and also sets the tone for two further Bach events scheduled for the weeks ahead: András Schiff and harpsichordist Jean Rondeau, who respectively play the Goldberg Variations on piano (in Vancouver’s old movie palace turned symphony hall, the Orpheum) and on harpsichord (in the far more intimate surroundings of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue).

Filippo Gorini (Marco Borggreve)

In 2019, Gorini introduced himself to Vancouver — and North America — with a wonderfully provocative debut recital combining the last two Beethoven sonatas with Stockhausen’s Klavierstück IX. What he might have conceived for a return visit was derailed by the pandemic. But as Gorini explained in his pre-concert Bach lecture, the enforced hiatus from travel and performances gave him time to delve deeply into a work more admired than performed.

Gorini said that for years he had known the Art of the Fugue and its reputation as a daunting intellectual achievement, the capstone of Bach’s career and a wonder of the classical repertoire. But with time to really examine the work and to consider how it might be presented for today’s audiences, he came up with an expansive vision: He would perform the 14 fugues and four canons and contextualize them with an introductory talk about the music; a big task in and of itself, but by no means the sole aspects of the project. As Gorini pondered many of the big issues triggered by his quest for understanding, he envisioned a dialogue with others about the broader consequences of these ideas.

To that end, he began a series of filmed conversations with luminaries in multiple disciplines, dialogues about Bach, his achievement, his legacy, and his message for the contemporary world. To fold these discussions into the Art of Fugue project as it played out in Vancouver, Recital Society subscribers were given online access to a selection of these dialogues before and after the actual recital.

Gorini questions the very nature of what a contemporary touring artist can and should do to establish greater communication with audiences, finding the decades-old fly in, perform, fly out model wanting. The pianist was based in Vancouver for a week, doing a run-out performance in the small town of Sechelt, a coastal community 45 miles (and a 40-minute ferry ride) from the city, and a workshop session with selected students.

But the core of the enterprise remained Gorini’s lecture and performance. It was obvious that by far the greater number of ticketholders had bought in to the idea of the lecture as well as the recital, and a nearly full Playhouse Theatre hung on Gorini’s every carefully chosen word for an intense 45-minute talk.

Speaking without notes, Gorini dealt with complicated issues in a way that invited listeners at various levels of preparation and even, perhaps, interest to feel an enhanced understanding of the great masterwork on offer. Of course Gorini placed The Art of the Fugue in the context of Bach’s life and work and described some of the intricacies of Bach’s mastery of counterpoint and the extraordinary complexity of his intellectual achievement.

Filippo Gorini (Marco Borggreve)

This was, however, mere prologue. As Gorini coolly described the trajectory of the sequence of fugues and canons, he also made an even more central point: This is not an intellectual exercise to be appreciated as ideas on the page; rather, this is living music with a range of poetry and emotion, a grand metaphor for the human condition, a journey to be understood through performance.

With the lecture complete, Gorini excused himself for a glass of water and a quick rest, then returned to the society’s Hamburg Steinway to play, from memory, over 70 minutes of unbroken music. He’s not a particularly demonstrative artist, but his commitment, consummate understanding of the material, and ability to highlight a wealth of detail made his concentration and passion contagious. The audience seemed deeply involved, moved by the inexorability of Bach’s music and able to understand, through Gorini’s exemplary yet subtle methods of highlighting details, the immensity of Bach’s achievement.

Given his overarching concept of a spiritual journey, much of Gorini’s focus was on the understated poetry to be found in the piece. There were moments of despair, even agony, as well as celebration and joy. Guided by Gorini’s introduction, listeners were made aware of the work’s unfinished state, as well as Gorini’s thoughts about the great triple fugue that encompasses the notes/letters of Bach’s name. But knowing and experiencing are different. When Bach’s torrent of sublime counterpoint abruptly stopped in its tracks, with the pianist sitting motionless for what felt like an eternity, each listener had to make personal sense of their shared experience. A coup de théâtre or a metaphor? We decide.

As a perfect but unexpected coda to the project, Recital Society founder Leila Getz spontaneously canceled the planned post-performance Q&A session with the young pianist, suggesting we all needed to rest and think about what we had experienced. “We’ll talk with Filippo next time he’s here,” she told her exhilarated, exhausted audience.