Composer and organ builder very nearly get equal billing on this CD. Bach’s name is in larger letters than Silbermann’s on the cover, but the latter gets twice the column inches inside.
Craig Humber is happy for the organ to be the star of the show, or so it seems from the fact that it was he who penned the comprehensive notes about its history and construction. They are an interesting pair J.S. Bach and Gottfried Silbermann; almost exactly contemporaries and equally distinguished, and yet there is no evidence they ever worked together or even met.
Issues then of authenticity, or at least historical verisimilitude, ought by rights to be the starting point for a project like this. They are certainly important motivations for Humber, but he is also at pains to emphasise that traditions of organ building in the 18th
century were as diverse as those of performance. So, where Bach borrows freely from courtly dance styles of France, so Silbermann borrows the designs of ‘fiery reed and powerful mutation stops’ from his Gallic contemporaries.
But historical issues aside, the most valid and obvious justification for recording this music on this instrument is that it works supremely well. Bach’s lyrical counterpoint in these, for the most part gentle, works ebbs and flows beautifully when rendered in these warm, restrained timbres. Humber claims to use every stop of the organ at some point on this recording, but he mixes the colours subtly, and his restraint with the mutation stops in particular makes their few appearances all the more effective.
Two discs of Chorale Preludes, even if they are by Bach, can be excessive for a single sitting, and this is music best appreciated in small, but regular, doses. Almost any recording of works in a single genre by a single composer risks monotony, and that can be a particular problem here, as almost every work is slow, quiet and made up of unbroken contrapuntal textures. On the other hand, Humber is to be congratulated for not attempting to sex it up for the sake of impatient listeners. Each of these works functions as a perfect artistic entity, whether heard in a liturgical context or heard in succession, and Humber is happy to present them just like that, with nothing added or subtracted. It is quite a conservative approach, even for an organist, but it’s ideal.
The SACD sound is good, almost too good. The liner-notes make much of the imperfections of the organ, statements which sit uneasily with the balance and evenness of tone in the recording. And how have they managed to avoid excessive resonance from the cathedral acoustic? MDG make a big thing out of their opposition to any kind of digital manipulation, so it can only come down to astute sound engineering on the day – or on the night rather, if the stories I’ve heard about organ recording sessions are anything to go by.
Craig Humber is clearly passionate about the work of Gottfried Silbermann, and he demonstrates on this recording that he has the artistic skills to show off the organ-builder’s work at its very best. A recording project that makes such a feature of its instrumentation is always going to require the highest possible standards of recorded sound. Fortunately, that’s exactly what this one gets.