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Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080

Hermann Scherchen (Conductor)

Review: Scherchen AoF

A-6

J.S. Bach: L’Art de la Fugue

Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080, instrumentation by Hermann Scherchen [94:28]

Hermann Scherchen

CBC Toronto Chamber Orchestra

Kenneth Gilbert (Harpsichord)

Tahra

Dec 1965

2-CD / TT: 122:26

4th recording of Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 by H. Scherchen. 1st recording of Die Kunst der Fuge BWV 1080 by K. Gilbert. Including rehearsal.
Review: Scherchen AoF
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Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 12, 2002):
Myriam Scherchen, the daughter of the great German conductor Hermann Scherchen, has set up the Scherchen Foundation to keep the memory of her father alive. The label she set up, Tahra Productions, has released dozens of historic productions over the years, by Scherchen and other great conductors. This 2-CD set is a recording of Scherchenıs orchestration of Bachıs Art of Fugue, recorded for the Canadian Broadcast Company shortly before Scherchenıs death in 1965.

As one can expect, this recording was made with modern instruments - for the most part; Kenneth Gilbert is heard on harpsichord - and is a performance typical of the practices in vogue at the time. Yet what stands out in this recording is the extraordinary orchestration by Scherchen, which gives this music a unique tone.

Scherchenıs tempi are relatively fast for the time - none of the lush, thick, slow string playing that is often heard in 1960s recordings of the work. His chamber orchestra is lean, and, in spite of the recording techniques of the time, each instrument can be clearly heard. Scherchen uses dynamics a great deal to emphasize certain parts of the score. There is great tension in the 7th fugue, with the strings starting out with a crescendo, before winds and other instruments come in to add subtlety and balance the powerful string section.

Fugue 9 is very disappointing. Kenneth Gilbert plays this on solo harpsichord - somewhat daring for the time - but unfortunately his instrument is out of tune, and this can be clearly heard at several points in the lower register. But he nevertheless gives a dynamic performance of this fugue. He is heard again alone in several of the canons, and this use of a solo harpsichord adds some more intimate sections to this generally
extroverted orchestration.

Scherchenıs orchestration is most impressive in the two longest fugues, number 12, the triple fugue, and number 18, the unfinished quadruple fugue. Here he uses the full range of instruments to create almost symphonic movements, which nevertheless do not betray the spirit of the music.

This is a historical document, that shows a unique approach to Bachıs Art of Fugue. While far from current performance practice, Scherchen offers a window onto another, equally valid approach, which puts the music in a different light. With the exception of the solo harpsichord parts, this is a very moving recording.

Contact Details: http://www.tahra.com/

 

Feedback to the Review

Charles Francis wrote (April 12, 2002)
[To Kirk McElhearn] I don't know about this particular recording, but Scherchen's 1949 performance using the orchestration by Roger Vuataz is my favourite. Strikingly dark and sombre in some instances, e.g. in Fugue 4 (now known to have been composed very late in Bach's life). IMO, the orchestration by Vuataz anticipates the Early Music revival some thirty years later. But then Scherchen was very much associated with the avant garde and I suspect 'Early Music' formed part of this picture back then.

Kirk McElhearn wrote (April 12, 2002):
[To Charles Francis] I haven't heard that one yet, but it is available from the same label. I'll look into it.

Bradley Lehman wrote (April 12, 2002):
[To Kirk McElhearn] Yes, I think this is a very good assessment of this performance.

I'd add a couple of comments:

- The program notes give an excellent background of Scherchen's relationship with the Art of Fugue.

- The booklet also includes a transcription of Scherchen's rehearsal instructions, corresponding to the rehearsal on the first disc: useful. It's good for following Scherchen's English, and even better for non-English speakers who want to follow what he's saying (the transcription is translated into French and Italian versions). Scherchen's English has bits of Latin, German, French, and Italian sprinkled into it as he's thinking aloud and speaking to the orchestra. This is an interesting window into his mind.

- Gilbert plays harpsichord in the four canons only, not in the contrapunctus that is typically given the number 9. (The numbering such as "IX" in Scherchen's arrangement does not allow easy comparison with other editions, as he's moved things around.) The most noticeable passage of pitch problems (the place where the voices exchange) sounds to me like a tape slipping, not the harpsichord being out of tune with itself. In fact, the harpsichord as a whole is very flat as compared with the orchestra, while fine by itself...so, whenever a harpsichord movement comes along, there's a lurch of pitch level. Mildly annoying. Not to mention that the harpsichord is so closely miked it sounds bigger than the orchestra does...too loud! Too loud! :) "And now over to you, Ken!" "Thanks, Hermann!"

- Scherchen's performance here, as in his other recordings of this arrangement, has the strange tic of suddenly augmenting all the note values near the ends of most of the contrapuncti. That is, in his arrangement Scherchen wrote those notes to be played at half speed (or, occasionally, quarter speed!), instead of keeping them as Bach wrote them. This lurch into slow motion for concluding phrases really bothers me. I feel that a more normal, gentler ritardando would make the same point more effectively; this way with the augmentation it throws off the structure of the music and sounds affected, not subtle enough. It seems to me that he doesn't trust Bach to know what he was doing, or else perhaps he doesn't trust his audiences to get what Bach was doing.

It's like the way some filmmakers put slow-motion effects into climactic scenes of the movie to MAKE SURE we understand how life-changing this climax is. It doesn't trust the audience to draw their own conclusions intelligently. Ditto for Stokowski in his orchestration of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D Minor for "Fantasia," those places where he lurches into half speed. I like these orchestrations except for the tempo mangling. When a train pulls into a station it slows down, yes, but it does not *suddenly* go half speed or less; the laws of Newtonian physics do not allow that! :)

(Somehow Scherchen also induced Herbert Tachezi to do this same slow-motion lurch in the harpsichord solo movements for Scherchen's Vienna recording. Mercifully, when Tachezi made his own recording later on organ, he played those passages normally. It was clearly just a Scherchen thing.)

As I listen to this Scherchen performance, I actually dread the impending end of each movement, the way the laws of physics will suddenly not apply. It. Feels. Wrong! So..... Very...... Wrooooong! This Scherchen/Stokowski tempo tic might not bother everyone as much as it does me.

Other than that caveat, I like this orchestration and this performance. They illuminate the music well, and I'm glad to have the set.

 

Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080: Details
Recordings:
Until 1950 | 1951-1960 | 1961-1970 | 1971-1980 | 1981-1990 | 1991-2000 | From 2001
Discussions:
General Discussions - Part 1 | MD: The Art of Fugue
Reviews:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | AOF - Aldwell | AOF - Alessandrini | AOF - Delft | AOF - MacGregor | AOF - Phantasm | AOF - Scherchen | AOF - Taussig
Articles:
The Art of Fugue: Expanding the Limits! [E. Demeyere]

Hermann Scherchen: Short Biography | Wiener Akademie Kammerchor | Vienna State Opera Orchestra
Recordings of Vocal Works:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Recordings of Instrumental Works | General Discussions
Individual Recordings:
BWV 232 - Scherchen | BWV 244 - Scherchen | Review Scherchen AoF

Kenneth Gilbert: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Review: Scherchen AoF

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