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Johann 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]
Jacques van Oortmerssen (Christian Müller organ, 1734)
rec. Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, Holland, 2007. DDD
Booklet with notes, organ description and detailed registration specifications.
Experience Classicsonline

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 comparatively sparingly.
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 justified here.
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.
Brian Wilson


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