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Divine Art

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 (1750) [75.42] arranged for String Quartet by Roy Harris and Mary Norton *
Donald Francis TOVEY (1875 - 1940)
Conjectural completion to the final fugue of Bach’s Art of Fugue (1931) [3.33] +
Roth Quartet (1934): Feri Roth, Jeno Antal, vv; Ferenc Molnár, vla; Janos Scholz, vc., rec. American Columbia Records, 6 December 1934 *
Donald Francis Tovey, piano, rec. London, UK, 10 May 1935. +
Notes in English, including original 78 rpm matrix numbers.
Digitally remastered 2005 by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio. mono ADD
DIVINE ART 27804 [76.15]

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Comparison recordings:
Delmé Quartet. Hyperion CDA67138
Reinhard Goebel, Musica Antiqua Köln. DG Archive 431 704-2
Alexander and Daykin, duo pianists. Connoisseur Society CD 4241/2
Paul Jordan, organ. Brioso BR 128

Bach’s Art of Fugue up through the early twentieth century was assumed to be a scholarly work for study by music students, not intended for performance. This despite Karl Czerny having issued a two stave piano arrangement which suggests that Beethoven may have played it. In 1927 Wolfgang Glaser performed his arrangement for orchestra. This created a sensation similar in kind if not in degree to Mendelssohn’s performance of the “unperformable” St. Matthew Passion nearly 100 years before. In the meantime, Hermann Scherchen had begun work on his arrangement for chamber orchestra which he would continue to revise and perform up to the year of his death. Four years after that Tovey published his edition (OUP) which included a completion of the unfinished final fugue - “The finest thing I have ever done,” he said - on four staves in open score and also on two staves, and declared that the work had always been intended for keyboard performance. It was just four years after that, that this, the first recording of the work, was made.

The Roth quartet was reorganized in 1939 with only Feri Roth continuing, adding musicians from the then former Manhattan Quartet; not to be confused with the present day Manhattan Quartet. Roy Harris is mostly remembered for his Symphony No. 3 which some critics consider the greatest American Symphony ever written - I don’t care much for the work - and for a string of anecdotes documenting his enormous conceit, remarkable even among composers*. Mary Norton’s husband founded the Norton company which is still a distinguished name in scholarly publishing.

The original work is written for the traditional vocal ranges so to play it on modern instruments of the violin family some octave transpositions of phrases at the bottom edges of ranges are required. However, as Reinhard Goebel pointed out, the work can be played on instruments of the viol family without transpositions; in his recording with a chest of viols, the work takes on an uncanny resemblance to the Fantasias of Henry Purcell. Robert Simpson then demonstrated that all one really needs to do to adapt the work for modern string quartet is to transpose it to g minor, and, so transposed, including the Tovey conclusion, the work has been beautifully recorded by the Delmé Quartet. But today the work is almost always played on keyboards, and the two piano version listed above, a richly dramatic interpretation featuring an astonishing variety of piano sonorities, is widely admired, as is Helmut Walcha’s legendary but now out-of-print recording on the organ. Walcha’s student, Paul Jordan achieves much of his teacher’s clarity and grandeur with a little more passion, and includes a new completion for the final fugue based in part on the research of Erich Bergel.

This performance for string quartet achieves the very even, singing, “nostalgic” sound that many 1930s musicians affected when playing old music, as though such modern concerns as drama, texture and dynamics were simply too vulgar for dear old classics. There are some vibrato and portamento as well. The string sound on this very listenable restoration is rich in tone, remarkably well balanced, and free of distracting noise. Most of the fugues could fit on a single 78 rpm side, but two of them required a side-break. The restorer tells how the performers would slow down as they came near the end of the side; but he was able cleverly to restore the tempo digitally so that the side breaks are inaudible and the music flows convincingly through them.

This is a very listenable and enjoyable recording but somewhat monotonous in tone until the abrupt change from strings to piano at the end. After you have some of the recordings listed at the beginning of this review, this recording would make a fine addition to round out your collection.

*As I recall it, my favorite involves Eugene Ormandy who, in conference with another American composer, felt obliged to cancel a scheduled performance of a Harris work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But, considering Harris’s huge ego, the other composer challenged Ormandy to get away with it without a fight. So, Ormandy at once got on the phone to Harris and said in effect that the orchestra was going to play on the same program a work by Sibelius, and considering the magnificence of the Harris work, the Sibelius work would sound so tawdry and amateurish by comparison, would Harris mind awfully if his work was rescheduled, since Ormandy just couldn’t do that to his dear old friend Sibelius. Harris solemnly agreed that poor Sibelius would be totally outclassed and agreed to the change out of kindness. When he hung up the phone Ormandy and the other composer had a huge laugh.

Paul Shoemaker



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