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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Poet Musician

Choral Preludes from Orgelbüchlein: BWV 641, 640, 642, 636, 643 and 644 [7:46]
Pièce d'Orgue, BWV 572 [9:18]
Kyrie-Christe - Kyrie from Clavierübung III: BWV 669-671 [13:50]
Trio Sonata No. 4 in E minor, BWV 528 [11:09]
"An Wasserflüssen Babylon", BWV 653 [5:52]
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 [13:38]
"Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit", BWV 668 [5:04]
François Menissier (organ)
rec. Silbermann Organ 1741, St. Thomas Church, Strasbourg, May 2000

Orgelbüchlein Pieces - Preston/Deutsche Grammophon, Rogg/Harmonia Mundi, René Saorgin/Harmonia Mundi, Weinberger/CPO, Zerer/Hänssler
Pièce d'Orgue - Leonhardt/Sony(Seon)
Clavierübung III Pieces - Rogg/Harmonia Mundi, Suzuki/BIS
Trio Sonata in E minor - Kee/Chandos, Rogg/Harmonia Mundi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor - Biggs/Sony
BWV 653 - Schweitzer/Pearl, Sykes/Raven
BWV 668 - Leonhardt/Sony(Seon)

Reviewers sometimes have to deal with the issue of how many times to listen to an unrewarding set of performances before declaring it not worthy of reader investigation. One of the major problems in this process is that the reviewer can't be sure that the 'next hearing' will not change the perception, that a light might turn on that makes the performances much more appealing.

The above considerations were on my mind when listening to the Editions Hortus release of Bach organ works performed by François Menissier on the historical Andreas Silbermann organ at the St. Thomas Church in Strasbourg. Through about seven listenings, I was nearly convinced that Menissier's readings were not recommendable for reasons having to do with my traditional preferences in this repertoire. Menissier favors rounded contours and smooth musical lines; I tend to prefer sharper-edged and more angular interpretations. While Menissier offers highly devotional readings of the works related to religious text, I favor a more celebratory style. Lastly, Menissier's soundstage is not well-defined and is often muddy in bass response; my tastes involve a cleaner acoustic that allows for fine detail to come though.

After listening to the disc a few times and becoming increasingly frustrated, I decided to set it aside and come back to it a couple of weeks later. When I did, a warm glow started building in my heart and I am now quite smitten with the interpretations. Why the change of mind? Clearly, I was allowing my traditional preferences to obscure the excellent aspects of the performances. Menissier's style is highly lyrical, routinely bringing out all the beauty of Bach's music. The rhythmic flow is very appealing, and the readings are among the most comforting on record. At the same time, Menissier easily adapts to the more majestic requirements such as in the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The most rewarding feature is what I refer to as the "Papa Bach" effect where the composer seems to beckon us with outstretched arms to enter his world of security and enlightenment. This effect is not as strong as in the Gillian Weir performances on Priory that I reviewed for MusicWeb in February 2004, but it remains highly effective.

Here is a more detailed account of Menissier's performances:

Orgelbüchlein Pieces - Bach's "Little Organ Book" consists of 45 short chorales mainly having the cantus firmus in the soprano voice with the lower voices acting as counterpoint to the chorale melodies. Menissier's interpretations are exceptional and stand tall next to the fine versions noted in the heading.

Among the highlights, Menissier invests BWV 641 with the poignant beauty conveyed by the circulating and embellished soprano voice. His BWV 640 is the most ominous sounding I know, a quality previously reserved for the Gerhard Weinberger account on CPO; in most versions, the music has a 'reach out to God' sensibility, but Menissier urgently reaches for the dark side of the universe with his rumbling bass line and incisive accenting from the soprano voice. Other highlights include the muscular BWV 642 where Menissier bristles with darker hues than in the exceptional Simon Preston version and the reverential BWV 636 with its strong upper voice and irresistible rhythmic patterns.

Pièce d'Orgue - Also known as the Fantasia in G major, this is the only Bach organ work having a French title. In three sections, the work leads from the style of a Fantasia with arpeggios to a majestic five-part Alla breve, then concludes with another section of arpeggios much more stern than in the first section. For many years, my favored version has been from Gustav Leonhardt whose regal Alla breve and swirling and crisp arpeggios bring out all the splendor of the music. Menissier's account is a close second with its thoroughly uplifting Alla breve and arpeggios not quite as detailed as Leonhardt's.

Clavierübung III Pieces - Sometimes referred to as the German Organ Mass, this body of music consists of the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 acting as bookends, twenty-one chorale preludes, and the Four Duets BWV 802-805. Menissier has selected to play the first three chorale preludes which form a unified and progressive entity in Latin liturgy. Musically, each prelude is more intense, determined, and inevitable than the previous, culminating in the colossal strength and spirituality of BWV 671.

My reference versions come from Lionel Rogg and Masaaki Suzuki. Both organists fully convey the emotional depth and majesty of the music, with Suzuki being the more severe and powerful. Menissier's interpretations are of equal reward, the main difference being that he is much slower in BWV 669; this allows for a highly devotional reading that exudes sadness.

Trio Sonata in E minor - Menissier immediately makes contact in the four-measure opening Adagio with a heart-wrenching sadness followed by the energetic Vivace. In the second movement Andante, Menissier employs delectable registrations to highlight the uplifting nature of the music. Best of all is the third movement Un poco allegro where Menissier offers the most vibrant and rhythmically active account I have ever heard, surpassing the exciting performance by Lionel Rogg. I think Menissier has struck gold with this work as he gets the most out of the Silbermann organ's impressive resources.

Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor - One of the most inspired works for variations over a repeating bass line melody. This is a colossal piece, and it becomes increasingly massive as each variation unfolds. I consider the E. Power Biggs version a wonder to behold with its tremendous strength, inevitability, and lyricism. In effect, Biggs gives us a blend of severity and beauty second to none. Although Menissier doesn't quite reach the exalted level occupied by Biggs, he certainly provides the massive qualities of Bach's music with the stern demeanor required of the work.

BWV 653 & 668 - These are two of Bach's collection of eighteen chorale preludes known as the Leipzig Chorales. Actually, they were conceived during Bach's years at Weimar and later revised toward the end of his life. Also, the last piece, BWV 668, was never intended to be part of the cycle and was left incomplete after the first 26 bars.

BWV 653 is Israel's lament for being exiled to Babylon. The music has a smooth sarabande rhythm that well handles the regal treatment of Albert Schweitzer's historical performance and the intimacy of the Peter Sykes rendition. Menissier "splits the difference" between the Schweitzer and Sykes versions, offering a fine conversational approach.

A common report is that Bach was working on BWV 668 at his deathbed. The religious text reads, "Before thy throne I now appear", and it seems a most appropriate conclusion to a fantastic life of music. Bach goes out with an attitude steeped in confidence, nobility, and a comforting glow reflecting his life of homage and celebration of God. This is where Leonhardt enters the picture with a role-model performance conveying the upcoming communion between Bach and his maker. The dignity of his interpretation has no peers. So many other recorded versions treat the music as a gloom-infested deathbed scene; Leonhardt has Bach coming to God with his head held high and the knowledge that he has led a life worthy of entrance to Heaven. I can't say that Menissier's reading fully possesses the uplifting quality of Leonhardt's, but it's an excellent interpretation putting a positive light on Bach's journey and deliverance.

The Silbermann organ at Strasbourg is a fine equal-temperament instrument renovated in the mid-1800's by Martin Wetzel and in 1979 by Alfred Kern. However, it doesn't have the woodsy tone of the North German Silbermann organ, favoring a luxurious sound that combines with a high level of reverberation to diminish the clarity and distinction of Bach's counterpoint. Conversely, the richness of the organ plays well into Menissier's devotional and lyrical approach to Bach.

To summarize, Menissier's performances definitely hold their own when compared to the better Bach organ recordings in the catalogues. I would strongly recommend the disc except for my skepticism that the Silbermann/Strasbourg organ and venue are good choices for a Bach program. Those readers who favor smooth performances and a good deal of reverberation could well be thrilled with the disc. I do have to caution that the booklet notes and texts for the chorales are in French and German only. One thing is for sure - François Menissier is a major Bach performing artist who deserves our attention.

Don Satz




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