never-ending research into the life and works of the man many
musicians have called the greatest composer in history has recently
benefited from the discovery in Weimar of a previously overlooked
manuscript in Sebastian Bach’s own hand. The manuscript contains
a handful of keyboard works by famous composers of Bach’s youth,
and dates from 1700 or earlier, when the great composer was
in tablature, a musical shorthand using letters instead of notes
in common use at the time, the works are of great complexity
and sophistication. They show just how accomplished a musician
Bach was, even in his youth. Given that precious little information
exists about the composer’s early years, these documents shed
a great deal of light on Bach’s development as a keyboard virtuoso,
and lend credence to the long-held belief that his genius showed
itself at a very early age.
the time Bach copied these works - a common pedagogical practice
before the age of easily reproduced printed material - he was
living with his elder brother, Johann Christoph in Ohrdruf.
Having lost both his parents by the age of ten, Sebastian left
his birthplace of Eisenach in 1695, and lived with his brother
who saw to his early education. By 1700 he had gone to Lüneburg
for further study. This document proves that he was the student
of Georg Böhm, one of the most prominent organists of his day.
significance of this music on the development of Bach cannot
be understated, but we must consider for the present purpose,
the music itself, and these performances. What we have here
are prime examples of mid to high baroque North German organ
music as written by some of the finest composers of the generation
before Sebastian Bach. The two highlights are the chorale fantasies
by Buxtehude and Reincken. They run the gamut of compositional
techniques of the period, and although quite improvisatory in
nature, they show how carefully wedded the music is to the texts
of the hymns, each line of the melody reflecting the tenor of
the poetry. Of great merit also are the brief works by Pachelbel,
which show him to be a composer of great ability and substance,
well beyond his reputation for composing the ubiquitous Canon,
arguably the most over-played work in all of western music.
Zehnder is a player of great refinement and subtlety. His registrations
are clear, and he is a master of drawing attention to each individual
voice as it takes center-stage and then recedes into the texture.
He plays with fine rhythmic precision and yet the fantasy pieces
truly come off as if he were improvising them. It is without
question that he has spent ample time researching performance
practices, and he performs these works with real flair and panache.
wonderful Arp Schnitger organ of St. Jacobi, Hamburg is perhaps
the closest instrument to what Bach himself might have played.
In fact, Bach applied for and was invited to take a job in Hamburg
at about the time this instrument was built. As fate would have
it, he turned down the position, and later lamented that he
never truly had a world class instrument at his constant disposal.
quality is bright and clear with enough ambience to give the
sound bloom but not too much to obscure the clarity of the complex
counterpoint. Notes on the music and the organ by Peter Wollny,
Michael Maul and Christoph Wolff respectively are superb.