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     Afontibus DA
            e-mail:             Nordahl Bruns gate 15C
0165 Oslo, Norway
      Telephone: +47 22 36 04 21
            Fax: +47 22 20 90 44



Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Organ Works
Prelude and Fugue in A minor BWV543 [3:38+7:15]
Orgelbüchlein BWV599-614 [20:04]
Prelude and Fugue in E minor BWV548 [6:59+7:50]
Fantasie and Fugue in G minor BWV542 [6:14+6:25]
Orgelbüchlein BWV615-622 [22:40]
Passacaglia in C minor BWV582 [14:50]
Prelude and Fugue in D BWV532 [4:51+6:24]
Orgelbüchlein BWV623-644 [33:16]
Prelude and Fugue in B minor BWV544 [6:19+6:58]
Kåre Nordstoga (Ryde and Berg organ)
rec. Oslo Cathedral, Norway, June, August 2006. DDD.
AFONTIBUS ATB-CD 06-08 A-C [3 CDs: 49:46+47:50+57:46]


This set presents the complete Orgelbüchlein, not accommodated on one or two CDs, as is usual, but spread over three discs, with longer pieces at the beginning and end of each disc. This arrangement obviously avoids any sense of fatigue in listening to all 46 chorales, so it seems churlish to point out that all the music here could just about have been fitted onto two CDs, since that would have broken the pattern. The playing is large-scale but good of its kind, the recording wide-ranging and clear. The discs come in individual stiff cardboard sleeves together with a booklet of notes, all housed in a cardboard slipcase the size of a single CD jewel-case. 

The title page of the Orgelbüchlein or ‘Little Organ Book’ dates from Bach’s time at Cöthen but it is generally agreed that these pieces were mostly written at an earlier period, in Weimar, before 1717. Bach originally left space for 165 such pieces but some pages bear the title only; just 46 were completed. Their purpose is something of a mystery: the dedication suggests that they were to be used as models by less-experienced organists who wished to play an organ prelude before the singing of the chorale in the Lutheran services. A cycle of such chorales, intended to be sung in unison by the congregation, existed in Bach’s day; probably the best known are Luther’s Ein feste Burg which Bach used in his Cantata No.80 and the Advent chorale Wachet auf! (Cantata No.140). BWV645, the prelude on Wachet auf! from Bach’s later collection known as the Schübler Chorales, will be familiar as the organ piece which ends the King’s College Cambridge Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast on Christmas Eve. 

The slim but informative booklet offers a good deal of information about all the pieces; those interested in discovering more about the Orgelbüchlein – and about Bach’s music in general – should start with Malcolm Boyd, The Master Musicians: Bach (London: Dent, 2nd edition, 1990) pages 48-53. Parts of the booklet are printed in Courier or a similar typewriter font, which is hard to read. 

Whatever their original purpose, Bach never intended the pieces in the Orgelbüchlein to be played through in their entirety and recordings which do so run the risk of sameness. The most recommendable of these are Wolfgang Zerer’s on a single Hänssler CD (92.094) and Christopher Herrick’s on Hyperion. The Herrick received a strong recommendation here on the MusicWeb site from Terry Barfoot when he reviewed the 16-CD complete collection (CDS44121/36) but appears also to be still available on one CD (CDA66756), usually offered at less than full price. Zerer plays the organ of the Martinkerk, Groningen, essentially a 1984 restoration of a 1730 organ, parts of which date back to 1450, whilst Herrick plays the Metzler organ of St Martin, Rheinfelden. Both seem to be ideal instruments for these works. 

Nordstoga plays the main organ of Oslo Cathedral. Despite the baroque casework, preserved from the 1727 organ and illustrated in the booklet, this is a modern three-manual instrument (Ryde and Berg 1998). The booklet lists all the stops and the Afontibus website offers more information, including the claim that “the expression of the old baroque façade has had a certain influence on the aesthetics of the new instrument, both in respect of craftmanship [sic] and sound. The new organ has a solemn sound with transparent and fresh harmonics reminicent [sic] of the organ ideals of the 18th century.” (The booklet portrays the organ case in its old grey guise, the website in its newly-restored green.) Neither the booklet nor the website offers details of the registration actually employed for each piece. Why cannot record companies follow the example of Challenge Classics, whose Bach organ CDs offer full details of the registration employed by Jacques van Oortmerssen? 

In a recent review I found the sound on Volume 8 of Oortmerssen’s Bach series (CC72153) bass-heavy, with too much use of 16’ and 32’ stops. Nordstoga sounds far less heavy, producing what many will find an ideal middle-of-the-road style. Though normally a lover of a more authentic style, I found the performances here very enjoyable. The Great Manual has just one 16’ stop, the Swell two and the Pedals two 32’ stops but I am not sure that he uses any of these; if he does, the effect is not overdone. Though Oslo Cathedral is, presumably, a large building, the reverberation is not excessive as heard on these discs. Perhaps the engineers have tamed any excessive reverberation; the recording as a whole, as I have indicated, is bright, clear and wide-ranging, with no hint of boom in the bass. 

The preludes on the first CD cover the period from Advent to New Year. I compared them with what has hitherto been my favourite version of these, on a CD of Bach’s Christmas Chorales by Lionel Rogg (Harmonia Mundi HMA190717 if still avalable).

Nordstoga came out well from the comparison, with tempi almost an exact match; if anything, Nordstoga is usually a second or two faster, as in his In dulci jubilo, BWV608 (not a moment too fast at 1:19 against Rogg’s 1:34). Though Rogg’s Silbermann organ at Arlesheim is a very different instrument, and I still prefer its lighter, more tremulous sound, these new performances will take their place alongside Rogg’s. The New Year chorale, Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV614, which rounds off the chorales on the Afontibus CD, receives a particularly successful performance (more of a welcome to the new year at 2:05 than Rogg’s more wistful look back at the old at 2:23).

The Fantasia and Fugue, BWV542, which opens the second CD, provides an opportunity for comparison with Oortmerssen’s version of the Fantasia alone. At 6:14 against Oortmerssen’s 5:52, one might expect Nordstoga to sound ponderous, but such is not the case; with his lighter-sounding registration, less reverberant acoustic and more immediate recording, he actually sounds more lively. I compared Oortmerssen’s performance of this piece unfavourably with Peter Hurford’s (444 410-2, 17 CDs, or a Double Decca, 443 485-2). Between Nordstoga and Hurford honours are about even in this piece. 

Few will buy this set for the non-Orgelbüchlein pieces, though they are mostly amongst Bach’s more popular organ works. Two of them, BWV532 and BWV548 are also included on a Naxos disc of Bach Organ Favourites (8.550184). The Flentrop organ of Oberlin College, which Rübsam plays on that CD embodies a philosophy similar to that exemplified by the Oslo organ – a modern instrument inspired by the organ-builders of the past. In both works Nordstoga comes in significantly faster than Rübsam without sounding at all hurried; Rübsam sounds a little ponderous and his registration a little thick by comparison, though perfectly acceptable within the terms of his own recital. 

These CDs carry text for those players which can display it, which proves something of a mixed blessing: the organist’s name is given as K?re (å is not an ASCI character) and the opening item on the second disc is displayed as Fantasie in g-moll (the correct designation in German notation), then BWV516 (incorrectly). The Fugue which follows is then incorrectly stated to be the prelude which is actually the third item on the disc. By the end of the disc we are somehow back to the correct information. 

If you want the Orgelbüchlein on its own, then you would be better served by Herrick or Zerer. If you like the additional works on the Afontibus set in good, middle-of-the-road performances, well recorded, you will hardly go wrong. Readers who do not know the Orgelbüchlein are certainly recommended to try one of these recordings; I may have made the preludes sound academic, when they are anything but. Try BWV637, Durch Adams Fall ist ganz verderbt (verderbt, not verdorben as in modern German) where the falling sevenths in the pedals depict Adam’s fall or the descending scales of BWV607, Von Himmel kam der Engel schar, where the descent of the Christmas angels is depicted. 

I have not encountered the Afontibus label before – Nordstoga’s earlier recordings are on the Simax label – and am not sure at what price-level this set is intended to sell; if it is to be reasonably priced, that is all the more reason to recommend it.

Brian Wilson


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