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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No. 1 in C Major BWV 1066 (1725) [28.55]
Suite No. 2 in B Minor BWV 1067 (1725) [28.03]
Suite No. 3 in D Major BWV 1068 (1725) [23.37]
Suite No. 4 in D Major BWV 1069 (1725) [25.11]
Musical Offering BWV1079 [49.21]
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera/Hermann Scherchen
Recorded Vienna 1962 (Suites) and 1964 (Musical Offering)
TAHRA TAH WEST 3003-3004 [79.48 + 75.40]
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This is a well-stocked double album Ė but then it would have to be since it contains Scherchenís notorious Bach Suites and Musical Offering, recordings of massively slow tempi. Buschís 1936 recordings of the Suites were nearly thirty years in the past when Scherchen set to work with the Suites in Vienna Ė and Casalsí Marlboro recordings were four years in the future, to take two exemplars of this repertoire. But Scherchenís approach to Bach is of an almost cosmically different order to that of Busch (or of, say, Boyd Neel). It is Bach of huge deliberation, profound consideration and extensive thought.

As ever the question with Scherchen is one of tempi and tempo relations. But whereas in other recordings, say the Beethoven symphonies, a ponderous movement could be contrasted with a kinetic one here all the movements conform to the same model and the effect, to ears attuned to modern performance practice, sounds baffling. In fact historically informed performances are really not the point. Busch had been an exponent of aerated textures and agile tempos and the juxtaposition of his forward-looking deftness and Scherchenís granitic deliberation seems to make a chronological mockery of Bach performance.

The odd thing, or to be exact the not entirely improbable thing, is that Scherchenís deliberateness of tempi does not always equate with heaviness or ponderousness. This is partly to do with questions of articulation and partly to a lightening of bass lines. An acid test might be the Courante of No.1 Ė which you might sample to see whether you can take Scherchenís approach. Itís not nearly as extreme as the Ouverture of No.2, in which he takes ten and a half minutes and Busch seven and a half. But it is an acid test nonetheless.

Throughout one can admire, despite the tempi, the tangy accents of the Forlane of the First Suite and the articulate flutes in the Rondeau of the Second and the delightfully brusque trumpets in the Bourrée of the Third, though he makes the Sarabande of the Second Suite sound rather nearer to Schumann than is comfortable. Thereís overpowering gravity in the Ouverture of the Third Ė where heís actually slightly quicker than Casals, himself not by then the fleetest of Bachians. Should you be interested in stop-watching, the Air of the Third takes six minutes; Casals and Busch agree on 4.48. Hushed pianissimos and great personality course through the Fourth and Scherchen manages almost to suggest a Ländler, so genially does his rhythm sway. Whether you should have a Ländler suggested is of course rather a different matter.

The Musical Offering is heard in Scherchenís own edition and reprises the same kind of tempi heard in the companion Suites. Heíd premiered Roger Vuatazís nine-instrument chamber version back in 1936, a version he recorded fourteen years later. For this recording, made in 1964, Scherchen orchestrated it anew bringing some remarkable sonorities and characteristic individuality of utterance. Itís by no means as outrageous an approach as his Art of Fugue orchestration, which he premiered in 1965.

Given the choice one would better appreciate Scherchenís earlier take on the Suites, recorded in 1954. The intervening period of eight years wrought some pretty remarkable changes in conception, indeed a complete and radical tempo overhaul Ė surely one of the most remarkable in recorded history.

The booklet notes are rather sparing and need to be better proof-read though there are helpful tabulations concerning Scherchenís tempi for his two traversals of the Suites. Itís indicative that most of this review has concentrated on that issue.

Jonathan Woolf



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