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Die Kunst der Fuge › Ton Koopman & Tini Mathot, Vienna, December 11th 2002
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Ton Koopman & Tini Mathot, Vienna, December 11th 2002

Ton Koopman & Tini Mathot
Two harpsichords by Willem Kroesbergen, after Ruckers and Couchet
Wednesday, December 11th 2002, 19:30, Brahmssaal, Musikverein Wien

Don’t remember who it was… in a discussion about music someone suddenly mentioned some piece, or a certain record, that this person likes to listen to when being half asleep - and suddenly everybody else showed up with favorite half-asleep recordings. To be clear: not music for falling asleep, no lullabies, but for a listening in this special state of consciousness in between. Of course different tastes and temperaments occurred, many a surprise, and hardly any coincidence. And various feelings about what it means to be half asleep.

It must be hard for musicians playing a concert when they become aware of the fact that half of the audience is asleep.

The Art of Fugue certainly is not easy consume, and to someone who has never heard it at all I would not recommend a performance on two harpsichords as a first contact. The man who sold me his wife’s abonnement ticket at the entrance, left for home after the first half of the concert which was dominated by this winter’s first cold wave, with a lot of coughing between the contrapuncti; Fugen + Husten. But coughs can also be a sign of lack of attention. After the pause the concentration grew dense, the two musicians kept more (undisturbed) contact with the still numerous remaining audience who, at the end, acclaimed their performance warmhearted and enthusiastically. Unusual thing at a concert with the Art of Fugue: after ending with a dramatic Cp.XI, they added two encores by repeating the exciting Cp.IX and the soothing Cp.I, the point from where it started. All this - the bravi, the encores - lifted the performance of a work which is normally considered as dry and intellectual up to a lighter, almost sensuous level.

Sure, the sensuality of two harpsichordists playing fugues is a very sublime one, and hardly audible without any preparation (or for a listener who is seated too far away).

In the suspense-packed and psychologically sophisticated novel The House of Sleep by the British author Jonathan Coe, the assumed bad-guy-of-the-book is a mad scientist who wants to abolish sleep anywhere & forever as a waste of time and energy. He starts with incredible experiments with several animals that are kept awake permanently in specially animated cages and boxes, and later he gets more and more human beings into his sick laboratory. Twenty years before, however, the young man is introduced as a student who is attending a harpsichord concert with Bach’s Art of the Fugue. There are almost no listeners shortly before the beginning, so the organizer asks people passing by in the street to join the concert for free in order to fill the hall. One of these random listeners is the woman who is telling the whole story; in her first impression she describes this student as an over-concentrated listener whose first words towards her are a critical remark on a special aspect of the harpsichordist’s interpretation, which she doesn’t understand; neither the review, nor the music, nor the man himself - who is, at least, somehow fascinating.

That’s the normal image of the Art of Fugue - over-intellectual, top-heavy, and if you spend too much attention to it, it might seriously damage your mental health, drive you away from all human sentiments, and transform your personality into some Mengele-like monster.

Ton Koopman’s and Tini Mathot’s concert in Vienna showed up clearly that Bach’s fugues even can be sensual - sure, under the condition of some listening experience; nothing to attract anybody’s attention. It’s completely hidden in the music itself, and once your ears are open for it, you might have some wonderful moments.

I enjoyed watching the reflections of Ton Koopman’s watch on the golden carved wall of the Brahmssaal in Vienna, dancing to the various rhythms of Bach’s music.