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Johann Sebastian BACH (1695-1750)
Disc 1:
The Schübler Chorale Preludes, BWV 645-650
Pastorale in F major, BWV 590
Canonic Variations, BWV 769 *
The Four Duets from Clavier-Übung III, BWV 802-805 *
Manualiter Chorales from Clavier-Übung III * BWV 672-675, 677, 679, 681, 683, 685, 687, 689
Disc 2:
Prelude in E flat, BWV 552/a
Pedaliter Chorales from Clavier-Übung III BWV 672-675, 679, 681, 683, 685, 687, 689
Fugue in E flat, BWV 552/b
Chorale Partita, BWV 767 *
Dame Gillian Weir (organ)
Recorded at Deer Park, United Church, Toronto, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Fort Collins, Colorado *
Organ Master Series, Volume 3
PRIORY PRCD 753 [2CDs: 155:52]

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Dame Gillian Weir is one of the most highly esteemed organists in the world, performing organ works from the Renaissance up to contemporary compositions. Her recording reputation is likely most advanced by her readings for Priory of the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen. In addition to being a highly acclaimed concert soloist, Weir has excelled in the field of teaching and is in strong demand as a judge at international competitions. She was nominated by Classic CD magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Keyboard Players of the 20th Century, and the Sunday Times selected her as one of the 1000 Music Makers of the Millennium.

For this Bach set of performances, Weir plays two Phelps organs, one built in 1974 and housed in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the other built in 1970 and housed in Toronto. Both organs have mechanical key and electric stop action, and they sound splendid in Weir’s hands. Each of the organs has abundant strength to convey Bach’s powerful works such as the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 while also offering the tenderest passages such as in the Pastorale in F major.

The new 2-CD set is my first encounter with Weir’s Bach, and I am greatly impressed. Overall, her style in Bach is highlighted by light textures and a wonderful rhythmic buoyancy. Yet, when Bach’s severity and power are called for, there is no stinting. Registrations are always attractive, and the articulation is consistently interesting. However, it is the warmth of Bach that most represents Weir’s approach to his music.

Being a Bach organ enthusiast, I am familiar with most of the Bach organ recordings made over the past few decades. Dame Gillian Weir more than holds her own when compared to this vast recorded repertoire. Other Bach organists may surpass Weir concerning distinctive registrations, incisive articulation, and the presentation of musical severity and sweep. However, she has no peers when the subject is Bach’s lyricism and rhythmic flow. Undoubtedly, her new recording is a major addition to the organ discography of Bach, and I urge readers to investigate her performances.

Here is a more detailed description of the music and interpretations:-

Schübler Chorales – These masterful six chorales are a testimony to Bach’s command of counterpoint, which simply refers to the simultaneous playing of different melody lines set against each other. Weir conveys Bach’s command superbly, and delivers as fine a set of the six chorales as any other on record.

Most impressive are Weir’s delightful rhythmic flows that are lively and irresistible. Also, the light textures she employs work wonderfully except in BWV 648 where she tends to dilute the gravity of the subject matter with a rhythmic pattern that’s somewhat jaunty. On EMI, Werner Jacob gives the piece a demonstrative and ceremonial nature far removed from Weir’s rather cheery reading.

Weir’s performances of BWV 645 and 647 are amongst the best I have heard. In BWV 645, her quick tempo and vibrant rhythms are invigorating, and she creates urgency through her greater speed and incisive inflections. BWV 647 is a mixture of severity and enlightenment, perfectly caught.

Pastorale in F major and Canonic Variations – These are two under-appreciated works that bask in the glow of Bach’s love of making music. The Pastorale is in four movements, highlighted by a mesmerizing drone bass in each movement. I find the work thoroughly uplifting, and you won’t find another composition in the Bach corpus that surpasses the Pastorale in terms of offering Bach’s comfort and security. Even the 3rd Movement pleading aria in a minor key has tremendously effective rays of light. Most impressive are the 1st Movement’s ‘bag-pipe’ refrains and the 2nd Movement’s infectious rhythms and voice interplay. Lionel Rogg has been my standard for the Pastorale but now has to share this distinction with Gillian Weir. As with the previous works discussed, she has an uncanny knack for finding just the right rhythmic flows to use, and it works to perfection in the 2nd Movement where she is bubbling with the elixir of life. Concerning the rays of light I mentioned in the 3rd Movement, Weir’s strike to the heart immediately.

The Canonic Variations is one of Bach’s prime examples of canonic form. In its simplest form, a voice carries the basic melody line and is followed some bars later by another voice with the same melody. However, the second voice can take the melody and invert it, alter its speed, alter its pitch, and even change the music’s nature. The result sounds like a panorama of multiple themes when it is in reality only one theme subjected to a series of technical devices.

The architectural command that Bach brings to his Canonic Variations is beyond compare, and Weir revels in the technical complexity. She uses her technical expertise to convey to listeners Bach’s sense of spiritual enlightenment, paying particular homage to the music’s lift. Weir’s is a wonderful performance that puts a warm glow into this reviewer’s soul. Again, her rhythms are enchanting and her tenderness sublime.

Chorale Partita – Bach composed four chorale partitas, each one taking a hymn tune and subjecting it to a series of variations of wide breadth. BWV 767 has eight variations in a pattern of increasing grandeur and richness of texture. The 1st Variation is an extended duet between the soprano and tenor voices; the rhetorical side of Bach’s music is constantly interesting. Most rewarding is the 7th Variation where Bach’s chromatic effects (pitches outside the prevailing key) create an eerie landscape contrasted with the ascension to spirituality conveyed by Bach’s rising lines. Weir plays the 7th Variation with outstanding priority on its contrasts and gives us as poignant an interpretation as any on record. She’s also exceptional in the other variations, except that her leaping bass in the 3rd Variation has too little projection to compete with and complement the other voices sufficiently.

Clavier-Übung III (German Organ Mass) – This is a major Bach work that lasts over 1˝ hours and includes Manualiter Chorales, Pedaliter Chorales, the Four Duets, and the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552. As with Bach’s other monumental works such as the Well Tempered Clavier, the German Organ Mass is a compendium of Bach’s architectural styles and emotional themes. It’s all here – inversion, stretto, canon, counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, etc. Further, the breadth of emotions takes us from the highest peaks of enlightenment and security to the most perverse aspects of the human condition.

It would take quite a few pages to give a full account of the work’s history and construction, but I will offer a few items that I hope provide some illumination about the music. We have a series of chorales that Bach wrote in both manualiter and pedaliter form. The pedaliter chorales are often referred to as the ‘major’ chorales of the work; they are rich in texture, relatively severe, and very powerful/demonstrative pieces; of course, the pedals are used. The corresponding manualiter chorales, sometimes called the ‘small’ chorales, tend to be transparent and intimate with light textures, some playfulness, and a serenity not found in the pedaliter chorales. However, there still is plenty of bite in these small chorales, so don’t expect a collection of only warm music.

The Four Duets, more familiar as standing on their own and played on harpsichord or piano, are hard to explain in the context of the entire work. Bach evidently added them just before the work was published, and his reasons for doing so remain a mystery. There is the line of thought that Bach must have considered the work slanted in too rich and powerful a manner and that including the Four Duets which are manualiter in form would equalize the matter. Actually, this explanation is the best I’ve heard and will accept until a better one surfaces. The Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 represents the ‘bookends’ of the work. As with most of Bach’s music in this genre, BWV 552 is towering music of majesty and serious intentions.

As you can note from the heading, Gillian Weir gives an unusual sequencing of the German Organ Mass. Instead of playing a pedaliter chorale followed by its manualiter companion, Weir plays the manualiter chorales as a group on Disc 1 and the pedaliter chorales on Disc 2. Also, the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 becomes a set of bookends only for the pedaliter chorales. Weir’s justification for this sequence is that "In this way not only does one lessen the continual clashing of keys; even more importantly a quite distinct mood is created in each". I take issue with her approach in that it reduces the variety and contrasts inherent in the work. The manualiter chorales can be a fine respite from the power, severity, and grandeur of the pedaliter chorales. When played together, these powerful chorales can be a little overbearing depending on the style of the specific organist. Placing the Prelude BWV 552 in front of all the pedaliter chorales only exacerbates the potential problem. On the other hand, I should not make too much of this, because Weir is never overbearing.

Now to Weir’s actual performances. I did have a concern that her basic approach to Bach might not be well suited to the pedaliter chorales and especially problematic for the Prelude & Fugue BWV 552. However, my concerns were entirely unfounded. Weir takes to the severe and thunderous routes splendidly. Whenever Bach’s music needs to be ripped from the earth and soar to the heavens, Weir puts on her ‘power-pack’ as naturally as she conveys Bach’s tender refrains.

Compelling in every piece of the German Organ Mass, Weir’s reading of the pedaliter chorale BWV 687 is superior to all others. This is monolithic music of intense severity, and Weir dives into Bach’s mighty double-fugue edifice delighting in the opportunity to trade blows. There aren’t many rays of light in the piece, and Bach only offers them to us in tiny slivers. Still, Weir makes the most of them, allowing listeners a bit of respite from the grinding and severe nature of the music.

There hasn’t been a wealth of Bach organ recordings made in recent years, and I have been hungry for a fine set of newly recorded performances. With Gillian Weir’s new recording, my hunger is gone. While listening to her performances, I can’t get the "Papa Bach" designation out of my mind. Weir gives us a Bach with outstretched arms waiting to envelop humankind in his security and enlightenment. All we have to do is step forward.

Don Satz


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