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Decca Phase 4
Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Organ Works - Volume 9
Prelude and Fugue in c minor, BWV549 (1708-17) [6:37]
Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her,
BWV769 (pub. 1748)
Fugue in c minor, BWV575 (1708-17) [5:18]
Trio Sonata No.6 in G, BWV530 (c.1727) [18:02]
Vor deinen Thron tret ich/Wenn wir in höchsten
Nöten sein, BWV668 (date ?) [4:50]
Prelude and Fugue in e minor, BWV548 (1727-31) [17:09]
van Oortmerssen (Christian Müller organ, 1734)
rec. Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Holland, 2007. DDD
Booklet with notes, organ description and detailed registration
I was less than fully
convinced by Jacques van Oortmerssen’s last volume in this
series – see review – mainly
because I felt that he was too inclined to use 16’ and 32’ pedal
tone. On this new recording, playing his own organ at the
Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, where he inherited the post of organist
from Gustav Leonhardt, he is less tempted in this direction.
This organ has no 32’ stops and van Oortmerssen employs 16’ tone
The organ of the Waalse
Kerk dates back in parts to 1680 but its main build was by
Christian Müller in 1734, with rebuilds in 1965 and 1993.
As before, Challenge Classics very helpfully list not only
the specification of the organ but also the stops employed
for each section of each work. I wish they had been even
more reviewer-friendly and given the timings for each work.
The dates of the performances, too, would have been more
helpful than (P) and (C) 2007 on the label of the CD – the
only indication of date given anywhere. The Challenge website
was not helpful; this recording had not been listed there
when I checked. Nor are we told that the Sonata in G, BWV530,
is actually the sixth of the Trio Sonatas, either on the
insert or in the notes in the booklet.
As it happens, simultaneously
with the arrival of this Challenge Classics recording I was
completing my review of a recent EMI 3-CD reissue of some
of Werner Jacob’s Bach recordings, including the Trio Sonata
No.6 in G, BWV530. As expected, the more traditional Jacobs
is significantly slower than the younger van Oortmerssen.
I played the Jacobs first and liked what I heard – no impression
that this was a lumbering performance; in fact, the nimble-fingered
and lightly-registered beginning of the opening Vivace made
an excellent impression. The Lento central movement
receives an affective, light-toned performance, leading seamlessly
into a sprightly account of the final Allegro – not
exactly helter-skelter but lively enough for my liking.
Jacobs performs on a variety
of organs, in this case on the Silbermann organ at Arlesheim.
The EMI notes are sparser than the Challenge Classics – hardly
a cause for complaint when the three CDs sell for less than
one full-price recording – so I cannot be sure what registration
was employed, but the overall impression is of a light touch,
well captured by the 1970 ADD recording, with the organ well
placed spatially in the middle distance, as it were. Anyone
looking for a very competitively priced introduction to Bach’s
organ music would be well served by these Jacobs recordings
of Bach’s ‘Favourite Organ Works’ (EMI 5 09393 2).
Paradoxically, the opening Vivace sounds
slightly more pedestrian in Van Oortmerssen’s performance
and the registration less bright – perhaps it’s the use of
the 16’ pedal stop that makes the difference. Of course,
different organs sound differently, but I do prefer Jacobs
and/or the brighter sound of the Silbermann organ in this
movement. Van Oortmerssen’s version of the Lento is
just as affective as Jacobs’ – honours are about even here – and
the slightly thicker registration did not worry me so much.
The transition to the final Allegro is a shade less
seamless than Jacobs’, but van Oortmerssen’s performance
of this Sonata is certainly one that I could live with – if
I’d heard it first, I might even have preferred it; as it
is, Jacobs’ older version just has the edge. Both recordings
do justice to the instruments; the Challenge CD has the advantage
of being limited to one location, whereas the EMI splices
together recordings from a variety of locations with their
differences of ambience.
If the newer DDD version
sounds slightly duller than the older ADD sound, that is
mainly due to location ambiance and Van Oortmerssen’s choice
of slightly thicker registration; I don’t wish to make it
a major criticism.
Van Oortmerssen’s tempi
are not always fast. On Volume 8 he performs the Concerto
after Vivaldi, BWV593, much more slowly than Anton Heiller
on an elderly Vanguard recording – and noticeably more slowly
than Werner Jacobs in the same work on the EMI Triple. If
I preferred Heiller and Jacobs’ faster tempi in that work,
I have no quarrel with Van Oortmerssen’s comparatively leisurely
version on the new CD of Vor deinen Thron – he gives
the music all the room to breathe that it requires and the
registration in this work sounds ideal.
The programme is framed
by two Preludes and Fugues, BWV549 and 548 respectively.
In these larger-scale works Van Oortmerssen really comes
into his own, giving them appropriately weighty performances.
The grand opening of BWV549 makes a good impression at the
beginning of the recording. Early work though this is, perhaps
as early as 1708 – the notes indicate the influence of the
older composer Böhm – Bach’s style was already well developed
and the music makes a good impression in van Oortmerssen’s
performance, with the use of two 16’ pedal stops more than
The set of five Canonic
Variations on the Christmas tune Vom Himmel hoch make
a lighter interlude between the opening work and the Fugue,
BWV575, which follows. Only in the fifth and final variation
(track 7) does the big tune really shine out – Bach, perhaps
mischievously, making his congregation wonder if it would
ever appear. When it does, it is treated to the most luscious
and longest of the variations and van Oortmerssen brings
out all the joy of this closing section.
The Fugue in c minor brings
a change of gear and appropriately larger-scale playing again – though
not unduly large-scale – before the Trio Sonata and Vor
deinen Thron, which I have already discussed.
The notes relate the style
of the closing Prelude and Fugue, BWV548, to the opening
chorus of the St Matthew Passion and Van Oortmerssen gives
a performance to match that description. The concluding Fugue,
too, is well handled; he engages effectively with this work
of great stature and it makes a fitting conclusion to a recording
which I found generally preferable to Volume 8.
The Waalse Kerk is one
of Challenge Classics’ favourite recording locations – Ton
Koopman’s series of Bach Cantata recordings was made here – so
it is hardly surprising that the sound on this recording
is so good.
The notes repeat some
of the material contained in earlier volumes, including the
claim that there can be no ideal Bach organ and that Van
Oortmerssen’s registrations are founded on Bach’s own, admittedly
infrequent, indications and the practice of his time. The
notes on the individual pieces are very helpful, though they
assume that the reader will know what is meant by, for example, Exclamtio and Affectus
Tristitiæ in the notes on BWV548.
If the very diverse programme
appeals – as in the case of Volume 8, there does not seem
to be an obvious rationale for the choices, other than a
preponderance of minor keys, and the Canonic Variations would
surely have been better included on a CD of Christmas music – performance
and recording are sufficiently attractive for me to recommend
this CD. There are, however, very many first-class Bach organ
recordings, some of them much cheaper than the present recording,
which I would recommend as more essential purchases. The ‘thumbs-up’ accolade
is only for those who have already assembled several recordings
of Bach’s organ music.
Gerard Hoffnung CDs
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