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J.S. Bach’s Earliest Autographs
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Chorale Fantasie on Nun freit euch, lieben Christen [14:14]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit [3:21]
An Wasserflüssen Babylon [4:58]
Fugue in b minor [3:01]
Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722)
Chorale Fantasie on An Wasserflüssen Babylon [19:16]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Wie Schön leuchtet der Morgenstern
Choralbearbeitung, BWV 731 (fragment) [1:32]
Choralbearbeitung, BWV 764 [5:06]
Jean-Claude Zehnder (organ)
rec. Schnitger Organ, St. Jacobi’s Church, Hamburg, 27-29 August 2006. DDD
CARUS 83.197 [51:30]


The 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 a teenager.

Written 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.

At 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.

The 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.

Jean-Claude 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.

The 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.

Sound 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. 

Kevin Sutton



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