Bach Beethoven Fugue: Richard Tognetti – Australian Chamber Orchestra – Live in Concert

by Mark Isaacs

Label: ABC Classics ABC 481 4960
Reviewed by Mark Isaacs

This exquisite coupling made by Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in bringing Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven together in a colloquy upon the subject of Fugue has a deep historical authenticity.

Bach’s music marries its outpourings of spiritual devotion with an unsurpassed intellectual rigour and a joyous revelry in the sheer sensuousness of tones. It now enters its fourth century of stopping people in their tracks to marvel again and again at its remarkable wonders. Representing both the climax of one musical era and the beginning of another, Bach brought Renaissance counterpoint to its apotheosis while opening the door to real freedom of musical modulation; he was the Founding Conjurer, the Wizard-in-Chief, harbinger of the delicious magical trick of passing through tonal wormholes to even the most remote of keys, setting the stage for Wagner and beyond.

In Beethoven we sense the titanic wounded hero, the iridescent genius struggling with valour against the forces that oppose him. Riding roughshod over musical conventions, stretching and distorting the containers into which the prevailing classical forms insisted music be poured, he wrenches from his aristocratic patrons any intimation of his artistic servitude. In his late works he confronts both immortality and a cruel mortality, his deafness an almost ecclesiastical martyrdom that, while silencing his world, sets him on a musical journey that attempts to point the way to the “Ground of Being” of existential philosophy, the “Quantum Vacuum” of particle physics.

Bach proves at every turn that Fugue is a gestalt within his creative imagination, while Beethoven’s life becomes in part a representation of his tortured wrestling toward this idealised form of musical expression, a quest that features noticeably within the tapestry of his later works.

In the world of Fugue, Bach is the master and Beethoven his most worthy disciple. It is interesting that the subjects of Beethoven’s Op. 133 Grosse Fugue essayed on this disk, and of his great fugue that is the first movement of the Op. 131 C# minor quartet, and even the quasi-fugal imitative opening of his Op. 132 A minor quartet, all display a series of semitone steps of two notes, separated by a wider interval. This is the same kind of patterning found in the B-A-C-H motto that Bach employed to spell out his own name in German musical nomenclature, and it is surely a striking signal of reverent hommage from one great master to another. Beethoven’s late works seem in part to be a reckoning with Bach on the matter of Fugue.

The disk begins with the first four of the Contrapunctus pieces from Bach’s The Art of Fugue. These are sometimes known as the “Simple Fugues”, “simple” being very much a relative term here, meaning only that they do not use the more complex fugal devices found in the later pieces. The Art of Fugue is the Bible of Fugue and these opening fugues are perhaps its Genesis story. Like the presence of the one God in the Bible, The Art of Fugue has just one musical subject (a short and in many ways unremarkable motif that is the DNA code for all the pieces). While clearly a didactic work, the music of The Art of Fugue is full of sensual beauty, glorious to the ears. Again, this is Bach’s genius at play; it is both unashamedly learned and unabashedly demotic. The ACO give us all this, and more.

The second work on the disk is Beethoven’s String Quartet in B-flat major, Op. 130 in its “restoration mode”. The final movement that Beethoven originally wrote, which after its premiere was considered highly unsuitable and hived off to become the Grosse Fugue with its own opus number 133 while being replaced by a new finale, is now restored (as is often now the case) to its original place.

The quartet is in six movements, itself a revolutionary structure at the time and all the more so that two of the movements are uncompromisingly short. After the more conventional first movement (that still contains some rebellious irregularities of structure) the Presto lasts only two minutes, a folkish scherzo that contains a couple of deliberately vulgar moments (and, indeed, near the end Tognetti cheekily directs a few notes to be played pizzicato that were not so marked in the string quartet version, cleverly anticipating the urtext pizzicati soon to come in the opening of the next movement).

The third Andante movement is distinguished by a stately but yearning poise, charmingly realised by the ACO, as are the interrupting elements of controlled disintegration that can be a feature of Beethoven’s late style.

The following dance movement is a gently rustic romp, with some cross-rhythms that almost anticipate Brahms, and an ending that peters out before it finishes.

Then comes the glorious Cavatina, one of Beethoven’s most lyrical utterances and almost Schubertian in its feeling. The ACO is at its lyrical best here, even including one sweet portamento (slide), though it is not the only time I’ve regretted the ignoring of two instances of subito pianos (sudden drops to quiet) that Beethoven marks in order to snatch from under our feet the expected climax of the preceding crescendi.

The Grosse Fugue finale is around sixteen minutes and is a bewildering creation that unsurprisingly shocked so many at the time, and still can. It is more than a fugue, but rather a sectionally-layered structure that gives birth to, and shrouds, its fugues. In some ways, the Grosse Fugue is a symphonic structure all by itself, in the manner of Sibelius’ great seventh symphony where the movements are run seamlessly together. Aesthetically and in its formal design, it could be linked with Beethoven’s other giant fugue-based movement, the finale of the Hammerklavier piano sonata.

Technically, the Grosse Fugue is a tour de force in its unrelenting energy – even the passages of repose that interrupt present their own structural problems – and it is often a thicket of displaced and conflicting rhythms and accents. Add to that the constant crossing of parts and other roadblocks and you have a performer’s nightmare of a masterpiece, which is completely and utterly nailed here.

Indeed, Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra have touched monumental greatness in realising these supreme masterworks for string orchestra and releasing this disk of their live performances.

A string orchestra is not the original medium of either work, but in the case of The Art of the Fugue there are no instrumental forces specified. Fittingly for a musical treatise on fugue – and perhaps to some extent redolent of all of Bach’s music – the core of the musical argument is in the juxtaposition of the notes rather than the textures, the “what” rather than the “how”.

One of the major achievements of the ACO in these works is that it never sounds like a string orchestra. Other than the presence of the double bass (more on that later) the orchestra sounds like a master string quartet that has been zoomed in upon. The sound is larger than a string quartet, but not thicker or juicier.

The lushness and density of a conventional string orchestra (or the string section in a symphony orchestra) come from a subtle but distinct lack of unanimity. Multiple players on a single note are not perfectly in tune with each other and this produces a pitch effect known as “beating”, whereby overlapping sound waves of different frequency create interesting perturbations in the sonic texture. Individual vibratos are also not exactly aligned in speed and pitch latitude, bringing more perturbations still. It is a ”chorus effect” that is justly loved in choirs and string sections, even sometimes in wind bands.

Remarkably, the ACO manages to sound like there’s one giant player on each note or multiple-stopped chord. Of course the smaller numbers of sectional participants in chamber, rather than symphony, strings is a distinct aid in this, but it is nonetheless striking just how superbly it is done here. The accuracy of sectional intonation is frightening, ensuring we don’t hear those perturbations (except very occasionally up high where they creep in quite innocuously when absolute unanimity of pitch becomes humanly impossible due to diminishing fingerboard tolerances).

The other aspect at play is that vibrato is eschewed, appearing only once in a blue moon, and very briefly, on the most lyrical of lines. Playing without vibrato is now standard practice for authentic Bach performance, but not so in late Beethoven. But whereas a single player’s vibrato in a string quartet does not take away from the feeling of one player, its invariably variegated (pardon the expression!) individual manifestations within a string section will quickly signal that there are ranks of players at hand. Leaving vibrato out of the Beethoven was likely part of a strategy to keep the work sounding like a quartet.

Imagine one of the great string quartets of the world: full of deft, powerful and sweetly limpid playing plus a razor-sharp musical intelligence. Then put it under a magnifying glass, and watch it grow larger without losing a skerrick of those qualities, the finer proportions remaining fully intact with no extraneous intercessions. Finally, give it “big boots” in the form of a double bass, and now you’ll get the idea. It bespeaks a marvel of discipline to hear the ACO achieve this.

Acknowledgment must be made of the mechanics of transliteration. Richard Tognetti skilfully arranged the Beethoven quartet for string orchestra. In the case of The Art of Fugue an arranger is not really needed, and none is credited. The work often appears printed in “open score” rather than a keyboard “grand staff”, meaning each voice has its own stave and can be read off by the appropriate instrument or section.

However, even in The Art of Fugue there is a small arranging point in regard to the double bass, which sounds an octave lower than written. A decision must be made whether to have the bassist read the notes an octave higher, so that they sound where Bach or Beethoven wrote them, or to allow displacement down the octave (or possibly two octaves).

There is plenty of justification for the notes to sound in lower octave transposition, as this is a staple of organ music (with its 16’ and 32’ couplings) and also is a standard technique in string orchestration, where the basses often double the celli at the octave. The “lower octave” forays of the bass on this disk often include using the “extension” notes, a refinement that expands the range of the double bass down from low E to C, either by an extended fingerboard or a fifth string.

In one sense it might seem jarringly anachronistic to hear these lowest bass notes – commonly thought to be a development of the twentieth century – included in the music of Bach and Beethoven. However, in Beethoven’s case, the double basses in Vienna had a fifth string in classical times, enabling them to go down to the C, a note Schubert uses in the Unfinished Symphony. In any case, the tessitura is employed with such telling effect here that any squeamishness must be cast aside. It is an unalloyed joy to hear Maxime Bibeau’s gently tolling low Eb on the first chord of Beethoven’s Cavatina, and the low D heard in some of the cadences in the Bach evoke a 16’ or even 32’ organ stop. However, the bass octave doubling in the third fugal subject statement in the exposition of Contrapunctus I is less effective, taking away some of the clean austereness of the initial fugal entries, and there are a few other times in the Bach – for example in the lead up to cadences – where the lower octave bass doubling device seems overused and could be held back a little longer for all the better effect when it finally does arrive.

The more off-the-string giocoso style of playing given to the dotted rhythms in Contrapunctus II is not to my taste, and a heavier, more connected portato style of playing – such as used by Glenn Gould on the piano in this movement – would bring out a more apposite mood of austere grandeur.

In a very contemporary masterstroke of bold arranging, in Contrapunctus IV the strings seem to play pizzicato throughout (actually my ears tell me the bass is playing detached, short arco notes, but the actual effect is all pizz.), and players also sing along! At first, as the latter crept in, I thought it was inadvertent, as musicians will sometimes unconsciously sing quietly as they play. But as things coalesced toward the final sung-and-played chord it soon became apparent it was deliberate. I was surprised however that the trill in this movement was not played. The sustaining sound of a few players’ pizz would have surely allowed the trill to be carried by the left hand alone without employing any mandolin-like techniques in the right.

A disk like this should show yet again to the world stage that the Australian Chamber Orchestra is not only at the peak of instrumental accomplishment, but has a breadth of vision that allows it to make revelatory, fresh and intertextual statements about the most supreme masterworks of the Western musical canon, whilst also famously pioneering so much of what is new and bold in twenty-first century music-making.

This article was first published here