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