JS BACH; BEETHOVEN Fugue
Viol consort and not modern chamber orchestra appears to be the model for the first three contrapuncti of The Art of Fugue, however discreetly supported the ACO strings are by pairs of oboes and horns. Separated articulation for the fugue subject brings contrapuntal clarity and a French-style swing to the rhythms but a commensurate loss in gathering intensity, only partially offset by a restrained bass swell and a grand broadening through each final cadence. The arrangement of the Fourth, however, has grown on me: a pizzicato ballet with Swingle Singers-style backing – not as fey or irreverent as it sounds.
With mind thus uncluttered and palate cleansed, Op 130 strikes home – and not as an arrangement but as music that counts. For so forward-thinking a musician, Richard Tognetti makes the surprisingly old-fashioned claim that ‘the brutality of Beethoven’s music is more easily facilitated in a large concert hall with more troops’. Some readers may already have their minds made up: there are no gains and only losses in amplifying late Beethoven. I urge them to listen to this. There is some discreet alternation between solo and ensemble voices but nothing so fragmented as Terje Tonnesen’s concerto-grosso interventions (BIS, 8/14).
Notwithstanding the ACO’s trademark, wiry body of tone, often stripped of vibrato, the portamento in the Adagio sections of the opening movement belongs to a tradition from Mahler to Sir Colin Davis. Impassioned, positively heart-rending as the beklemmt section of the Cavatina haltingly enters a realm of fresh pathos, it’s a time-travelling sort of performance that brought to mind a stroke of genius in Calixto Bieito’s production of Fidelio, when a quartet descends from the flies to play the ‘Heiliger Dankgesang’.
There is no lack of juggernaut bass to launch the Grosse Fuge even in comparison with Furtwängler and Klemperer; indeed, the unanimity of the ACO lends Tognetti’s direction the same agility and unstoppable momentum as a solo-quartet version. I would be hard-pressed to credit the claim of a live recording (no applause or audience noise from three Sydney concerts, edited together), except for my imprinted memory of their performance in London earlier this year. Unusually, the impact has survived the transfer to disc. It’s a formidable achievement.