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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Works, Vol. 15

Concerto in G, BWV 592 (after Prince Johann Ernst) [7:48]
Schübler Chorales, BWV 645-650 (from Bach Cantatas) [19:14]
Concerto in d, BWV 596 (after Antonio Vivaldi) [11:34]
Concerto in a, BWV 593 (after Antonio Vivaldi) [11:34]
Aria in F, BWV 587 (after François Couperin) [3:42]
Ricercar in c for 6 voices, BWV 1079/5 (after Bach's Musical Offering) [8:32]
Gerhard Weinberger, organ
Recorded St. Wenzel, Naumburg, Germany, April 2003
CPO 777 018-2 [62:26]

 

Gerhard Weinberger's complete cycle of the Bach organ works, begun a few years ago, has now reached Volume 15. As with Volume 14, the new disc consists of arrangements from the pen of other composers as well as from Bach himself. Arrangements of existing music were common practice in the early 18th century as a means of meeting the musical demands of the community, church and state. Of course, it helps that Bach is at the wheel, and his arrangements are never less rewarding than the originals.

To date, Weinberger's Bach series has been somewhat of a mixed bag. His basic style has been to provide sharply contoured and detailed interpretations of tremendous power and severity. For the most part, this style has resulted in many amazing performances, although it can also neglect Bach's lyricism and subtleties.

The series has used a number of historical organs, and Volume 15 partakes of the Zacharias Hildebrandt Organ that was built in the years 1743 to 1746. Once completed, the organ was accepted by both Bach and the famous organ builder Gottfried Silbermann. The Hildebrandt organ was considered to have a gorgeous tone, and Bach's son-in-law Altnickol reported that "he who has seen and heard this organ never went away from it without admiration".

The Hildebrandt organ may be beautiful to look at and listen to, but its sound environment is the opposite of what Weinberger's playing style requires. The acoustical properties are overly reverberant, resulting in a spongy articulation by Weinberger. His sharp contours and well detailed musical lines never see the light of day as the swimming acoustics take command of the production. Such a soundstage would not seriously damage performances from an organist such as Christopher Herrick who favors rounded contours in his Hyperion Bach organ series, but it is the kiss of death for Gerhard Weinberger.

The Concerto arrangements offer a good picture of the problematic acoustics. The slow middle movements with their starker textures sound very good, and Weinberger uses highly imaginative registrations. Unfortunately, the busy outer movements are too dense and massive to allow any detail to emerge. I compared the Weinberger readings with a few other recordings in my inventory, and every one of them was sharper than Weinberger's and benefited from the difference.

Weinberger is surprisingly soft in tone and discreet in the Schübler Chorales. Although this style is not one I favor, the more significant problem again comes from the swimming acoustics and is most damaging in BWV 646 "Wo soll ich fliehen hin oder Auf meinen lieben Gott" where the musical lines get tangled up in an aural mush.

The one work on the program where the Weinberger trademark is ever-present is in the Ricercar from The Musical Offering. Weinberger's version is the most powerful I have ever heard, but the real distinction is that the tremendous strength continues unabated from beginning to end. I felt totally drained by the conclusion, and I think it is fair to say that the reading is one that no listener would ever forget.

In conclusion, Volume 15 is one of the least rewarding discs in Weinberger's Bach organ series. We could debate for many hours the virtues of Weinberger's approach to Bach's music, but the matter is relatively moot given a soundstage that tends to sap the organist's strengths. To get the full measure of Weinberger's style, I suggest acquiring Volumes 3 and 4 of the series. Volume 3 contains most of Bach's Orgelbuchlein, while Volume 4 completes the Orgelbuchlein and also offers wonderful interpretations of the Partitas BWV 767 & 770 and the Fugues BWV 569 and 574. I can only recommend the new volume to those who have been collecting every disc in the series.

Don Satz



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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