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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Works: Volume 8
Fantasia in G minor BWV542/1 [5:52]
Chorale Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr BWV662 [8:11]
Chorale Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr BWV663 [7:31]
Trio super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr BWV664 [6:04]
Prelude and Fugue in A major BWV536 [2:13 + 5:50]
Concerto in A minor (after Vivaldi Op.3/8) BWV593 [4:47+3:55+5:03]
Toccata and Fugue in F major BWV540 [10:02+6:36]
Jacques van Oortmerssen (Christian Müller organ, 1738)
rec. church of St Bavo, Haarlem, 25-26 May 2006. DDD.
Challenge Classics CC72153 [66:10]

This is the eighth in an ongoing series of Bach’s organ works, played by Jacques van Oortmerssen on a variety of organs, all roughly dating from Bach’s time. Having taken over and completed Ton Koopman’s series of Bach Cantatas, Challenge Classics now seem set to record all his organ works. With this eighth volume they must be about half way through. I have not heard any of the other discs in the series but, on the evidence of this volume, it is unlikely to prove the equal of the cantata cycle.
The booklet note challenges the concept of a ‘Bach Organ’ and advocates the employment of organs of different traditions as not only possible but even desirable. This, together with the fact that Oortmerssen has previously recorded 19th and 20th century French organ works for Challenge, might seem to indicate that he advocates a return to a less ‘authentic’ style than has recently been the norm. He certainly goes for a ‘big’ sound right from the opening Fantasia - here shorn of the Fugue which usually accompanies it in modern editions. This is an omission which the booklet defends on the grounds that the two were never coupled in Bach’s own time. Oortmerssen is also able to achieve a delicacy of tone where appropriate, as in the transcribed Vivaldi Concerto: in fact, his playing is reminiscent in its range of that of his teacher, Marie-Claire Alain.
The booklet claims that Oortmerssen follows Bach’s own indications for registration, but admits that these are infrequent. Otherwise he combines the registrations laid down by Bach’s contemporaries, with what the booklet calls “conventions … rooted in older traditions.” In the Chorale Preludes, the Trio and the outer movements of the Vivaldi Concerto, nothing heavier is employed than 8’ stops on the manuals and 16’ in the pedals; the slow movement of the Vivaldi is limited to 8’ manual stops. In all the other works Oortmerssen regularly employs 16’ manual and 32’ pedal stops. I hesitate to disagree with Oortmerssen, successor to the scholarly Gustav Leonhardt as organist of the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam, yet the resultant sound strikes me as somewhat too heavy – at times more appropriate to Franck or Widor than to Bach.
I have to admit to a personal preference here. Immediately after hearing the opening Fantasia, I listened for comparison to this piece as recorded by Peter Hurford, whose very fine Decca series of Bach’s organ works is available on 444 410-2 (17 CDs) with a selection on a Double Decca (443 485-2); a Classics for Pleasure 2-disc set has also survived from his later EMI recordings (5856302). My preference was very much for Hurford – a clean, clear sound, yet with plenty of bass, though I imagine he was not using anything more than 16’ stops: the booklet does not specify – full marks to Challenge for their very detailed listing. Hurford’s analogue recording also holds its own well against the Challenge digital recording; wide-ranging though this is, it is much less clear than the Decca, though the reverberation at the end of each piece suggests that this is partly due to the recording venue. I have to admit, however, that I totally failed in a blindfold test to convince my wife, who far preferred the ‘growly’ tone of the Oortmerssen.
The three ‘Leipzig’ chorale preludes on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, the Lutheran version of the Gloria in excelsis, are played in an appropriately reflective manner, especially BWV664, generally regarded as the finest of the three. Here I did not find the registration excessive and responded to the performances much more positively.
I have indicated also Oortmerssen’s lighter touch in the Concerto – actually based on Vivaldi’s Op.3/8, not Op.3/6 as stated on the back cover and in the track details in the booklet. Indeed, I was perfectly satisfied with his interpretation of this piece until I tried another comparison, this time an elderly recording by Anton Heiller whose Vanguard recordings drift in and out of availability – some are currently available in SACD format but not, I think, these concertos. I expected to find the comparison in Oortmerssen’s favour, but the livelier tempo which Heiller adopts in the opening movement made the new recording sound ponderous by comparison. Once again, although Ooortmerssen’s registration for this Concerto is lighter than in some of the other pieces, Heiller sounds much lighter and brighter, much more Vivaldi-like. His time for the whole Concerto is two minutes shorter, much closer to the tempo which Trevor Pinnock adopts for the original Vivaldi – 3:55 for the first movement against Pinnock’s 3:33 and Oortmerssen’s 4:47. Incidentally, Pinnock’s 5-CD Archiv box set of the Vivaldi, including the complete Op.3 and Op.10, is an essential bargain purchase, on 471 317-2. Bach apparently brought back several concerto scores from his visit to Amsterdam and transcribed them as part of an abortive cure for the dying Prince Johann Ernst, himself an able composer. Heiller’s approach would have been more likely to cheer up the prince than Oortmerssen’s more languorous version – and here my domestic critic agrees with me.
Bach made twenty such transcriptions – four for organ and sixteen for harpsichord. The Vanguard CD includes all four organ versions; surely it would have been more logical for Challenge Classics to have made all four the core of their disc or to have devoted the CD completely to chorale preludes. As it is, there seems to be no logic to the programme, though the variety of genres reduces the likelihood of listener fatigue.
Having written the above, I tried listening to the CD again on my second system, in a larger room and with speakers marginally less bass-sensitive. On this second system – and again when listening through a pair of decent headphones – I was far less aware of the bass-heavy registration and consequently more able to enjoy these performances.
One final point: Challenge Classics sell themselves six minutes short by claiming a playing time of 60:06; three CD players make it 66:10.
Brian Wilson


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