Scholars are far from certain why Bach composed the third book
of the Clavier-übung; unlike, say, the cantatas, mostly
written for Sundays and feast days in the Lutheran calendar
in fulfilment of his duties as cantor, Clavier-übung
III seems to have been composed purely as an act of devotion,
a series of reflections on the movements of the Lutheran Mass
and the catechism. We cannot even be sure for what instrument
the music was intended since, though most of the pieces are
clearly intended for two manuals and pedals, the volume also
includes several duets (BWV802-5), not included here, which
seem more to be more naturally suited to the harpsichord.
What Malcolm Proud offers on the current recording
is about half of the whole, consisting of the opening Prelude
and its related Fugue at the end of the collection, known
in English-speaking countries as St Anne, together
with the first three of Bach’s reflections on the German Kyrie
(BWV669), then the second of the three reflections on the
German Gloria (BWV676), the first of his two pieces
based on the Ten Commandments (BWV678), the first of those
on the Creed (BW680), the first of those on the Lord’s Prayer
(BWV682), then the first of the baptismal reflections (BWV684),
the first of the German version of the penitential psalm De
profundis (Aus tieffer Noth, BWV686) and finally
the first reflection on Christ’s salvation, Jesus Christus
unser Heiland (BWV688).
Thus we have representative pieces from the major
sections of the book, the German Kyrie and Gloria
(the only two sections of the Mass set to music in the Lutheran
rite), the Commandments, the Creed, and the three essential
sacraments enumerated in Luther’s Catechism, Baptism, the
Eucharist and Penance.
There would have been room for at least one other
piece – BWV676 could have been preceded by the first version
of Allein Gott in der Höh, BWV675, and followed by
the Fughetta on it, BWV677, for example. Otherwise,
the selection works well except for those who want the complete
work, for whom there are 2-CD versions on Nimbus (NI55612,
Kevin Bowyer), BIS (BISCD1091-2, Masaaki Suzuki) and Haenssler
(HAN092101, Kay Johanssen) and a budget-price 2-SACD version
on Brilliant Classics (92769). Johan van Veen was ‘not very
happy’ with a complete recording on Guild, which no longer
seems to be listed – see review.
If you want the classic mono recordings of Helmut
Walcha, which largely introduced me to Bach’s organ music,
they are available on a super-budget 10-CD set from Documents
(223489, splendid value at around £23 from some dealers).
Most of the Documents reissues which I’ve encountered are
well transferred, but I can’t vouch for this set, advertised
as the 1947-1952 recordings and, presumably, taken from mono
LPs rather than master-tapes.
If you wanted to supplement the new recording,
where the Prelude and Fugue are separated, as Bach intended,
with Walcha’s later version which runs them together, you
could download the two tracks from passionato.com.
You could even buy the whole set of Bach Organ Works
from passionato (463 7122); it also contains the complete
run of BWV669-689, not just the items which Malcolm Proud
includes. I hope to include a review of the set in a future
Download Roundup; I merely note here that passionato’s price
of £79.99 is around double what the CDs sold for when they
were available from DGG and to deplore their discontinuation
in that format.
The Prelude and Fugue, BWV552, are also available
on a very well-filled single-CD Walcha programme (DGG Originals
457 7042, with Toccata and Fugue, BWV565, Sonata No.1, BWV525,
Sei gegrüsset, BWV768 and 6 Chorale Preludes), also
available as a download from passionato.com.
That’s a special offer at £4.99 at the time of writing, but
still competitive when it reverts to £7.99, especially as
only one of the online CD dealers which I checked still seems
to stock it. The mp3 download is at the highest bit-rate
(320kbps) and the recordings, from the late 1950s and early
1960s, still sound very well indeed.
Walcha takes both the Prelude, BWV552, and its
associated Fugue a little faster – 9:25 as opposed to 9:50 and mere seconds apart at 7:14 against 7:16. For me his approach
is slightly preferable, but there isn’t much in it at all.
If I have to say that I derived more pleasure from re-encountering
old friends on that Walcha recording than I did from the new
Maya recording, I don’t mean to disparage Malcolm Proud’s
playing. Walcha’s Bach always seems to me instinctively just
right; Proud’s achievement perhaps seems a little more studied,
but there is very little to choose between them in the Prelude
If I have one small reservation about the shorter
pieces from BWV669-688, it is, perhaps, that Proud fails to
give the quieter, more reflective movements quite as much
time to breathe as Walcha; his tempi are mostly, though not
always, very slightly faster than those on the older recording.
In BWV671, on the other hand, he takes a whole minute longer
than Walcha; again, I marginally incline to the latter performance.
Perhaps, again, these things reflect the apparently instinctive
nature of Walcha’s playing. The very close Maya recording
may be partly responsible, too; it benefits from being turned
down a notch or three.
The Metzler organ at Stein am Rhein, built in 1992,
is a very fine and versatile instrument. Its specification
is included in the booklet as well as the registration chosen
– and aptly chosen, I think – for each piece. The organ which
features in most of Walcha’s recordings, too, the historic
instrument of Sankt Laurenskerk, Alkmaar, provides part of the appeal of his recordings.
David Ledbetter’s notes in the booklet are detailed
and informative, if a little too inclined to allegorical and
symbolic explanations. Short of including some music examples
to show how Bach echoes the Lutheran settings of the words
on which he is reflecting, effectively in the old-fashioned
cantus firmus manner, I couldn’t ask for more.
If the older DGG recordings wears its years very
lightly – some tracks may even be in mono, but I could hardly
tell which – the new recording is even better. But remember
to turn it down a few dB.
For those who just require a single-CD selection
from Clavier-übung III, then, this Maya recording could
be just what they have been looking for.