Accordion is the surprise magic ingredient in Bach’s fugal masterpiece

Les inAttendus: Bach

Les inAttendus: Bach

The Strad Issue: October 2021

Description: Accordion is the surprise magic ingredient in Bach’s fugal masterpiece

Musicians: Les inAttendus: Vincent Lhermet (accordion) Marianne Muller (bass viol) Alice Piérot (violin)

Works: Bach: The Art of Fugue BWV1080

Catalogue number: HARMONIA MUNDI HM905313

The Art of Fugue was Bach’s late-life, monumental exploration of counterpoint, written apparently for personal satisfaction alone just as the world swang decisively away from fugue and towards galant classicism. Its lack of specified instruments has led to all manner of instrumental combinations, although I’m not sure that an accordion has ever entered the frame. However, this suddenly feels inexplicable in the context of the success of this collaboration between French accordion and viol duo Les inAttendus and violinist Alice Piérot.

First, Vincent Lhermet’s accordion sounds like a thoroughly Baroque-idiomatic chamber organ; and although it can’t get around being tuned to modern equal temperament, the players have approached the softer, rounder Baroque sound world by transposing his part down a semitone, enabling the strings to tune to A=415Hz. Next, the trio’s respective timbres both sing and dovetail to a striking degree – just listen to their octave doublings in Canon 14. Tempos also feel organic, gently fluctuating to fit each fugue’s passagework, rather than remaining fixed throughout. Then all those performance decisions are wrapped up in an emotional world that hits all the right notes, combining reverence with an unforced, natural, everyday quality, including dotted figures that really dance. Natural capturing completes the package.