Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) The Art of Fugue, BWV1080 (abr./arr.for string orchestra [45:19]
Reichs-Bruckner-Orchester des Grossdeutschen Rundfunks/Herbert von Karajan
rec. 14 December 1944, Linz Stadttheater MELOCLASSIC MC5005 [45:19]
In the 1980s von Karajan proposed to EMI that he record The Art of Fugue with his organist brother Wolfgang, an undertaking that was apparently rejected out of hand by the company. Perhaps that wasn’t entirely to be deplored as Wolfgang is on record as having said of his exalted brother; “He understands nothing of the Art of Fugue”. Some ill-will existed within the clan, Wolfgang’s wife Hedy adding that Karajan’s LP of The Brandenburg Concertos was “bad”. These are facts that emerge from biographical material and not from the booklet notes to this very surprising release, especially as this recording of the abridged string version of the work was made in Linz in 1944.
The orchestra he directs in this well-preserved radio performance was the Reichs-Bruckner-Orchester des Grossdeutschen Rundfunks, a new name for the Städtisches Symphonieorchester of Linz, whose General Music Director was Georg Ludwig Jochum, brother of Eugen. Renaming occurred in 1943, apparently at Hitler’s express wish. The orchestra attracted the expected luminaries of Austro-German conducting; Böhm, Knappertsbusch, Kabasta, Schuricht, Keilberth and indeed Karajan who, in 1944, had been side-lined because of his marriage to his second wife who had a Jewish grandparent.
This string version takes three-quarters of an hour to perform and reveals a richly expressive legato approach but one without too much glutinous tone. As an orchestra used to playing late-Romantic music it has an appropriately weighty sonority, the string choirs are well matched and finely projected, but it would be wrong to term this a Brucknerian bottom-up performance, despite the sheer mass of the strings. The layering of the strings in Contrapuntus 4 is notable, as is the powerfully dramatic approach to Contrapuntus 8. There are elements in the performance – notably Contrapuntus 3 – where a too pronounced breadth saturates the performance but generally this is, for its time and place, a thoughtful reading. It’s one moreover that orders things in a particular way, Contrapuntus 1, 3, 2, 4, 9, 10, 5, 6, 11, 12 (rectus and inversus) and then the Fuga fragment.
Due to the unique nature of this reading, and the fact that Karajan was thwarted when he wished to return to it nearly 40 years later, this release will be of great interest to admirers of the conductor. It’s heard in excellent sound and with fine supportive documentation.