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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
21st Century Bach
Complete Organ Works - Volume 1

Prelude & Fugue in B minor, BWV544
Trio Sonata No. 2 in C minor, BWV526
Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV543
Chorale Prelude BWV682 'Vater unser im Himmelreich'
Chorale Prelude BWV646 'Woll soll ich fliehen hin'
Chorale Prelude BWV645 'Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme'
Chorale Prelude BWV642 'Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten'
Chorale Prelude BWV644 'Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig'
Chorale Prelude BWV640 'In dich hab' ich gehoffet'
Chorale Prelude BWV658 'Von Gott will ich nicht lassen'
Chorale Prelude BWV662 'Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr'
Trio Sonata No. 1 in E flat major, BWV525
Chorale Partita BWV768 'Sei gegrusset, Jesu gütig'
Chorale Prelude BWV662 'Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr'
Chorale Prelude BWV625 'Christ lag in Todesbanden'
Chorale Prelude BWV626 'Jesus Christus, unser Heiland'
Chorale Prelude BWV628 'Erstanden ist der heil'ge Christ'
Chorale Prelude BWV629 'Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag'
John Scott Whiteley (organ)
rec. Abteikirche, Amorbach, Bavaria and Stadkirche, Waltershausen, Thuringia, 1996
Screen format: 16:9; DVD format: DVD 9; Sound: AC3 5.1 surround and Dolby Stereo; PAL Region 0


Experience Classicsonline

This is volume one of a set which, when complete, will give us the entire organ works of J.S. Bach on DVD. These recordings were originally broadcast as a late-night series for BBC2, with performances by the organist John Scott Whitely in the churches and abbeys where Bach himself worked and performed, in this case in Amorbach abbey and the Stadkirche Walterhausen. The cover design is a still from the opening credits for the series, designed by British artist Damien Hirst, but timid viewers need have no fear that this will be ‘A Zed & Two Noughts’ horror flick about decaying artists being consumed by insects. These are essentially well produced recordings dressed in some state of the art camera work. The organs on which Whiteley performs as well as the baroque interiors in which they are found are in themselves works of art and very easy on the eye, and aside from a few experimental shots where the camera dips scarily into the larger pipes – presumably not while the instrument was being played – the imagery is a feast of tasteful panning and some intriguing multiple camera angles and split screens.

In fact, this is one rather adventurous attempt at solving the essential problem with such a project. As far as performance goes, organs have to be the most deeply unspectacular instruments to film. Organists tend not to move about a great deal, for all that they are the musician’s equivalent of an octopus, using all fingers and feet in feats claimed to be humanly impossible by some mortals. John Scott Whiteley proves superbly expert in this field, and little clips such as the opening of the Sonata BWV 526 where the hands and feet are shown simultaneously, give a good feel of the elegant complexity of the music, and the compact economy of control of the organist. Later on in the Allegro this on one occasion expands to a quartet of images: stunning stuff. Needless flapping around is, unlike with some pianists, not really the organists terrain and tends to lead to disaster if attempted – I know, I’ve seen it happen. Besides, the organist is usually invisible to the audience, especially in these magnificent baroque churches. As a result, head and elbow rolling and bizarre varieties of posture are well out; and hurrah for that. Where possible we do have some shots from above, including the nice touch of the organist’s briefcase, no doubt sandwiches included, plonked next to the stool. The director John Warburton is indeed very resourceful in this regard – fisheye lenses over the fingers being just another example. The same effect on the player’s face is less appealing – Peter Gabriel got away with it, but I doubt even he would have used it on ‘The Bach Tour.’ The cells of split imagery are sometimes placed over out of focus backgrounds of the interior which is a nice effect. If Bach’s handwritten notes had floated past it could have been ‘Prospero’s Books’ all over again. 

No, sitting on the organist’s shoulder like a parrot or at his feet like a faithful dog are no good for long periods, and so we move onto the instrument. If anything, this moves about even less than the player. Aside from a few twitching bits of mechanism, the best one can do is run the lens up and down the pipes. Some lingering on the beautiful ornamentation also helps, but aside from some interesting views behind the instrument and some teasing with perspectives and pushing and pulling with the focal length there just ain’t much going on. 

This however is the beauty of these programmes. I missed these when they were first broadcast even though we do receive BBC in The Netherlands. No doubt with the hour time difference I would have been tucked safely in bed by the time these went out. Each programme is presented as broadcast, complete with sinister and irrelevant Damien Hirst title sequence, and a brief scene-setting take of John Scott Whiteley walking into and, accompanied by a nice tingle of ornamental bells, out of each church. He does look a bit like an undertaker, but this chimes in with relatively sober performances. John Scott Whiteley has spectacular technique and superb musicality, but doesn’t go on for histrionics when it comes to ornamentation or massaging the tempi with inappropriate rubato and the like. In short, these are lovely performances, each work give its own atmosphere with well considered variation in terms of camera work and lighting. The BWV 682 Chorale Prelude 'Vater unser im Himmelreich' and Schübler Chorales BWV 642 and 645 are for instance filmed after dark, and using some of the fascinating chiaroscuro created by the artificial light, helped by a few strategically placed candles in the church. The organs sound very fine, and the sound quality is top notch, eschewing overly grand sound-staging but capturing the acoustic and feel of each location very well indeed. The Stadtkirche in Walterhausen is a smaller space and a drier acoustic, so less warm and all-embracing than Amorbach, but the sound is in no way a hair-shirt case of ancient-organ aversion. This is a more intimate space, with its own quirks of interest such as the cheeky faces that look up at the organist from either side of the keyboard, as if to distract the player and make him lose his way while improvising a fugue.

The booklet for this DVD has also been very well prepared, though I’m not sure we really need additional commentary on the camera work. Text such as “The prelude involves close-ups of fingers and feet, moving to the pedals as they enter...” is surely a bit unnecessary, though harmless enough. The notes on each piece, and the technical information on the organs, as well as the registrations used and comments on unusual features are of great interest even to non-organists. No? Well, you’d soon hear me complaining if they weren’t there.

Aside from one or two minor moments where I felt the camera snaking down the organist’s arm or almost under his fingers lead to a feeling more of discomfort than enjoyment, this is a DVD by which to put up one’s feet and revel in glorious sounds and images. There is also an interview with Professor Christoph Wolff of Harvard University which is fascinatingly informative on Bach and the organ music, but rather strange in overall impression. The professor sits in front of us as a talking head, has questions fired at him by an unseen and, judging by the acoustics, remotely positioned inquisitor, and talks back at us as if on the other end of a video conference. With this manner of presentation my mind soon shut down and stopped taking in information, but with some strong coffee and in full academic attention mode I have no doubt this is a useful extra to the performances on this DVD.

If you enjoyed these broadcast performances of Bach’s organ works the first time around then this going to be an excellent set to collect. The same goes for anyone interested in searching a bit deeper behind the more usual recorded releases we can find in the shops. Actually being able to see the kinds of locations and instruments Bach would have used creates a closer connection and greater understanding of the kind of music he wrote for those environments. Just seeing the texture of the wood in the keys is full of tactile interest. Very fine playing and highly creative production values both sonic and visual.

Dominy Clements



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