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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
"Clavier-Übung III – Sei gegrüsset"

CD 1
Clavier-Übung, III (BWV 552, 669-689, 802-805):

Praeludium pro organo pleno in Es (BWV 552,1) [08:22]
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, Canto fermo in Soprano, à 2 Clav. et Ped. (BWV 669) [03:25]
Christe, aller Welt Trost, Canto fermo in Tenore, à 2 Clav. et Ped. (BWV 670) [04:37]
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist à 5, Canto fermo in Basso, Cum organo pleno (BWV 671) [04:50]
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 672) [01:38]
Christe, aller Welt Trost (BWV 673) [01:24]
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist (BWV 674) [01:28]
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, à 3, Canto fermo in Alto (BWV 675) [03:59]
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, à 2 Clav. et Pedal (BWV 676) [05:04]
Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, manualiter (BWV 677) [01:14]
Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot, à 2 Clav. et Pedale, Canto fermo in Canone (BWV 678) [05:26]
Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot (BWV 679) [01:58]
Wir gläuben all an einen Gott (BWV 680) [03:31]
Wir gläuben all an einen Gott (BWV 681) [01:18]
Vater unser im Himmelreich, à 2 Clav. et Pedal e Canto fermo in Canone (BWV 682) [07:24]
Vater unser im Himmelreich, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 683) [01:36]
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, à 2 Clav. e Canto fermo in Pedale (BWV 684) [04:02]
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 685) [01:38]
CD 2
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, à 6, in Organo pleno con Pedale doppio (BWV 686) [06:38]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, à 4, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 687) [05:08]
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, à 2 Clav. e Canto fermo in Pedale (BWV 688) [03:51]
Fuga super Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, à 4, manualiter (BWV 689) [05:07]
Duetto I (BWV 802) [[02:41]
Duetto II (BWV 803) [03:25]
Duetto III (BWV 804) [02:49]
Duetto IV (BWV 805) [02:41]
Fuga à 5 con Pedale pro Organo pleno (BWV 552,2) [06:48]
Partite diverse sopra Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig (BWV 768) [20:41]
David Ponsford, organ [Peter Collins, 1990]
Rec. February 2001, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland. DDD
GUILD GMCD 7262/3 [63:14 + 60:02]


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The third part of the ‘Clavier-Übung’ was the first collection of music for organ that Bach published, in 1739. The title explains what it is all about: "Third part of the Clavier Übung consisting of various preludes on the catechism and other hymns, for the organ". It was the first time Bach devoted organ works to the Lutheran catechism. It is not known for what reason Bach composed these works. It is suggested it was connected to the celebrations marking the bicentenary of the Augsburg Confession on 12 August 1739.

The collection contains several settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria, two settings – one pedaliter (for manuals and pedal) and one manualiter (for manuals only) – of each of the six catechism chorales and four duets. The collection opens with the Prelude and closes with the Fugue in E flat (BWV 552). The Clavier-Übung is without any doubt devoted to the Holy Trinity, symbolised by the number 3, which appears in many different ways in the collection.

The liner notes are written by David Ponsford himself. He concentrates mainly on the musical structure, whereas his references to the symbolism in this collection are rather fragmentary. Sometimes his remarks are unclear or present assumptions or possible interpretations as facts. In ‘Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot’ (BWV 678) "the melody is treated in a canon for two voices symbolising the law". The reader is left with the question what is symbolising the law: the two voices or the canon form? And in what way do they symbolise the law?

His view that the juxtaposition of the Italian style of the pedaliter setting of ‘Wir gläuben all an einen Gott’ (BWV 680) and the French overture style of the manualiter setting (BWV 681) is a symbol of the "inclusive and ecumenical nature of the Creed" seems rather far-fetched. And he believes the final 5-part Fugue "represents Luther’s Evening Blessing", a view which is certainly not universally shared and which he fails to argue.

An example of incomplete information is the description of the Partite diverse sopra ‘Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig’ (BWV 768), a chorale setting with 6 variations for manuals only and 5 for manuals and pedal. Ponsford presents this work as variations on a Passiontide chorale. He should have added that this piece appears in some manuscripts under the title ‘O Jesu, du edle Gabe’, which is a Communion chorale. He also should have informed the reader that the variations appear in different orders in different manuscripts and that the order he uses is only one possibility.

Although the liner notes suggest Ponsford has paid attention to the symbolism in Bach’s music, he sometimes misses the point. The pedaliter setting of ‘Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot’ (BWV 678) contains sighing motifs (‘Seufzer’) and falling chromaticism, which could be interpreted as an expression of the inability of mankind to obey God’s law. In Ponsford’s performance these sighing motifs go by unnoticed, like in ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’ (BWV 682).

In other cases Ponsford shows awareness of Bach’s symbolism but fails to do justice in his performance. In regard to ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ (BWV 684) he rightly states: "Pictorial symbolism may well lay behind the left-hand semiquaver sequences (...). The melody (in the pedal) appears immersed in the waves of the River Jordan, whilst the leaping right-hand motifs are thought to represent signs of the Cross." But in his interpretation the cantus firmus is registered in such a way that it overpowers the other voices which seriously undermines the symbolism of the piece. The same problem appears in BWV 678 and in the Partita X from BWV 768. It is right that the cantus firmus should be clearly audible but it should never be registered in such a way that the balance between the voices is upset.

This brings me to the registration, which I often find unsatisfying. Some pieces are composed in French style, like ‘Wir gläuben all an einen Gott’ (BWV 681) and ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’ (BWV 682). Ponsford has registered them with stops that are characteristic for French baroque organs. But the organs Bach has played didn’t have that kind of stops, so these registrations are unhistorical. In general Ponsford seems to prefer rather loud, sometimes even obtrusive registrations.

This is not the only thing that causes me problems in his interpretation. The articulation is fairly inconsistent: legato, non-legato, even staccato. And all notes are treated equally, without a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ notes. I find his playing rather mechanical and lifeless. It just doesn’t breathe.

I have to say something about the organ. It is a modern organ, built in 1990 by Peter Collins, with mechanical action. "The tuning temperament is by Neidhardt (1724), an unequal temperament that gives individual character to every tonality". This suggests the organ has been built according to historical principles. But that is not the case. I can’t see what the historical justification is of putting ‘German’ and ‘French’ registers together in one organ. The overall sound of the organ is unpleasant, almost aggressive. The very direct recording only makes it worse.

I am not very happy with this recording. In these works Bach shows a deep understanding of the Biblical teaching and orthodox Lutheran doctrine. But organist and organ don’t have the eloquence to reveal the way Bach has expressed them in his music.

Johan van Veen

 

Peter Wells was rather happier with this recording

 



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