Despite the considerable size of St Mary's Parish Church, Haddington, this was always going to be an intimate affair. The building's stature ensured a wonderful acoustic but the lateness of the hour (9:45pm), the nature of the music and the attention it encourages lent the gathering something of the nature of a family affair.
Phantasm director Laurence Dreyfus explained in his eloquent programme notes that this performance would omit the canons and mirror fugues from Die Kunst Der Fuge (The Art of Fugue) and concentrate on the "three fundamental kinds of fugue in the collection" (1) simple fugues in Contrapunctus 1-4 (2) counter- or augmentation in Contrapunctus 5-7 (3) inverting or double figures in Contrapunctus 8-11. One happy outcome of this arrangement is that all four players would be engaged for the majority of the programme. Of those movements performed, only Contrapunctus 8 is scored for three voices and the effect was something of a textural sorbet. That's not to say, however, that all four played for every second of the performance. In an age when dynamics were not written on the music, but written into it, varying the density was one of the ways of ensuring variety of volume.
The more monochromatic the medium, the more one seems to notice and I found that I noticed detail in this fine playing that I might otherwise have missed in, say, a symphony orchestra. For example, the principal theme at the work's heart contains no repeated notes. Therefore when a figure of three repeated notes featured in Contrapunctus nos. 8 and 11, their effect was more arresting that might normally be the case.
The same seemed true of tempo; many of the movements are similarly paced and the energetic tempo at which Contrapunctus 9 set off was quite thrilling. The nifty playing required at such tempi always seems striking in the bass, for perhaps the same reason we are impressed when we see a large sportsperson move with great agility. Markku Luolajan-Mikkola's bass viol figures in this fugue really caught my attention. A similar feature occurred in Contrapunctus 7 where, in the closing bars, the democratic sensibility of fugal writing and playing yielded to short cadenza moments for all four players. These oases of individuality were all the more refreshing for their rarity. Intensity of gesture came to the fore in Contrapunctus 11 where animated, ascending texture, late in the movement put me in mind of the baying, bloodthirsty chorus scenes in Bach's Passions.
Other musical features stood out more than usual due to the apparent homogeneity of timbre and compositional means: the dotted rhythms of nos. 2 and 6; the heightened chromaticism of nos. 3 and 8; the anacrusic openings of nos. 8-11 compared to the on-the-beat openings of foregoing fugues.
Tuning and intonation were key features here and it's important not to be misunderstood. In addition to pre-performance tuning, the ensemble tuned three times during the programme and it was much appreciated, especially at the final cadences, when the hitherto mobile ear had the chance to settle on a single chord. The intonation was wonderful as was the sense of ensemble in the light application of brakes before coming to rest. Vibrato was very sparingly employed, often late in the life of long notes.
Dreyfus addressed the 'Unfinished Contrapunctus' in his programme note. Despite scholarly opinion that editorial bungling, or even desire for sales, may more accurately account for the unfinished sound of a perhaps completed fugue, it's impossible not to be shocked when the notes simply run out. Somehow, the memento mori impact of this sudden absence of voice hits harder than, say, the corpse strewn stage of John Webster's The Dutchess of Malfi. Could this be because most of us are unlikely to be 'run through' but we will all, one day, run out of time? Although the final notes do not represent in any musical sense the end of a phrase, I couldn't help noticing that a player as musical as tenor viol player Jonathan Manson couldn't resist very subtle diminuendo and rallentando, which was very touching.
By way of thanks and farewell Phantasm offered contrapuntal artistry from our own sceptred isle: the aching beauty of Purcell's Fantasia no. 11.