Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Preludes, Toccatas and Fugues for Organ
CD 1
Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV565 [8:20]
Toccata Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564 [14:54]
Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV538, ‘Dorian’ [12:47]
Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV540 [14:24]
Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV547 [10:21]
Prelude and Fugue in b minor, BWV544 [13:00]
CD 2
Fantasia and Fugue in g minor, BWV542* [11:38]
Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV541* [7:29]
Prelude and Fugue in a minor, BWV543 [9:27]
Prelude and Fugue in c minor, BWV546 [12:16]
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV548 [14:09]
Prelude and Fugue in f minor, BWV534 [9:28]
Passacaglia and Fugue in c minor, BWV582 [13:36]
Lionel Rogg (organ)
rec. November/December, 1975 on the Metzler organ, Cathedral of St Peter, Geneva; February, 1976 on the Marcussen-Andersen organ, Monastery of Sorø, Denmark*. ADD.
EMI CLASSICS GEMINI 2642892 [73:49 + 78:04]

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Masterpieces
CD 1
Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 565 [8:05]
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564 [14:04]
4 Chorale Preludes, BWV 608, 610, 615, 639 (Orgelbüchlein) [9:53]
Concerto in a minor, after Vivaldi, BWV 593 [11:31]
Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 538 ‘Dorian’ [12:53]
Toccata and Fugue in C, BWV 566 [11:02]
Chorale Prelude, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (Achtzehn Choräle von verschiedener Art) [4:52]
CD 2
Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV 532 [10:34]
Chorale Prelude Jesus bleibet meine Freude (Cantata, BWV 147) [3:47]
Sonata No.3 in d, BWV 527 [12:47]
Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV 547 [11:12]
6 Chorale Preludes, BWV 645–650 (Schübler Choräle) [17:52]
5 Chorale Preludes, BWV 727, 729–731, 734 [10:25]
Marie-Claire Alain (organ)
rec. 1983-1985. DDD.
WARNER CLASSICS MAESTRO 2564 68975-5 [73:31 + 67:33]

For many potential buyers one or both of these well-filled and reasonably priced 2-CD sets will be just what they were looking for. The Lionel Rogg recordings are taken from a 5-LP box issued in 1976. Four organs were employed for that album, of which two are represented here for what is described as ‘Volume 1’.

Even before he made these recordings for EMI, Lionel Rogg’s Bach performances on the Bach Recordings and Harmonia Mundi labels had received critical praise. His 1969 version of the Art of Fugue, now available on another EMI Gemini reissue with the Organ Concertos (3817662) had also been widely welcomed. He had also recorded for Bach Recordings two of the works on the new reissue, BWV541 and 547, on that strange hybrid instrument, the pedal-harpsichord.

The Marie-Claire Alain recordings are excerpted from her Warner Classics’ 14-CD set of Bach from the late 1980s and early 1990s, made on a series of historic organs. There’s also a 55-minute DVD which she made at about the same time, demonstrating some of the organs employed for that series; Kirk McElhearn described it as ‘full of insights that any fan of organ music will appreciate’ – see review.

Epithets such as ‘stupendously good’ were applied by reviewers to Rogg’s recordings of the 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, Alain’s Bach has always been highly regarded, so, on the face of it, it should be possible to recommend both sets, principally to those beginning to explore Bach’s organ music and to connoisseurs alike.

Four works are common to both recordings. Both open CD1 with the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV565, now widely regarded as not the work of JS Bach, though it is difficult to imagine that there existed a contemporary composer, now unknown, capable of having produced it. Both performances are good, with Alain slightly faster than Rogg. I slightly prefer the sound of the organ of St Bavokerk, Haarlem, on which her recording was made, but there is very little in it. Warner track the Toccata and Fugue separately, but I can hardly imagine anyone wishing to play either track on its own, unless for teaching purposes.

The same is true of the following Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564; three tracks here, again, on Warner to the one on EMI, with Alain once more slightly faster than Rogg. As with BWV565, I could happily live with either performance. Again, a slight preference for the organ, this time that of the Jakobijnkerk at Leeuwarden, inclines me marginally to prefer Alain.

The third work common to both recordings is the so-called ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV538. This time the tempi are almost exactly identical – Alain is six seconds slower – and, once again, there’s very little in it. This time Alain plays the work on the Silbermann organ in Freiburg Cathedral and I very much like its bright sound, though it’s capable of packing quite a punch when necessary.

In the fourth work common to both programmes, the Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV547, Alain is slower than Rogg. Once again, however, both performances are convincing within their own terms. As a reminder that there are other considerations than tempo, my benchmark performances by Helmut Walcha are mostly slower than either Alain or Rogg, yet never lacking in conviction. Walcha’s 2-CD set containing BWV547, 564 and the inevitable 565, together with the Art of Fugue (DG Archiv 477 6508) has recently been deleted, though some dealers still seemed to have copies when last I checked. For details, see my July, 2009, Download Roundup.

With so little to choose between these two recordings, the rest of the programmes could well be a deciding factor. Here, too, I thought that Warner had the slight advantage in terms of the greater variety of music and of the organs employed – in addition to those already named, we have those of St Laurenskerk, Alkmaar (partly Schnittker), Église Saint-Martin, Masevaux, Aa Kerk and Martinikerk (both Schnittker), Groningen, Stiftskirche Grauhof, Goslar and another Silbermann organ, that of St Georgenkirche, Rötha.

Both recordings are good, with the Warner (DDD) having a slight edge over the older ADD EMI sound.

The notes in the EMI booklet are minimalist in the extreme, though they include an admission that the famous BWV565 may not be by Bach at all. The Warner booklet offers slightly fuller documentation; though still rather brief, it includes a rather more detailed discussion of the authenticity of BWV565. I suppose it’s too much to ask for specifications of the organ in this price-bracket, though Naxos usually manage to include one; I’d very much have welcomed such information. To have been able to compare the two organists’ chosen registrations for individual works would have been even more fascinating.

I should briefly mention another inexpensive selection of Bach’s organ music, this time on three budget-price CDs and featuring Werner Jacob (EMI Triples 5093932); I made this Bargain of the Month in June, 2008 – see review. That set includes the Trio Sonata No.3 and the Concerto in a after Vivaldi, the former taken considerably more slowly than Alain and the Concerto at much the same pace. Comparing the two, I now think that I prefer Alain in the Sonata, while honours are about even in the Concerto. I also marginally prefer Alain’s slightly faster account of Nun komm, BWV659, and of the Schübler Chorales.

I described Jacob’s performance of the Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV565, as ideal – grandeur without pomposity. At their different tempi, Rogg and Alain, though both are faster than Jacob, achieve just about the same balance.

Jacob also includes a livelier version than Rogg of BWV544, a slightly slower version than Rogg of BWV582 and a version of the ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue at about the same tempo as Rogg and Alain. The EMI booklet for the Jacob set is as minimal as that for Rogg.

Beginners would probably be best advised to go for the Warner/Alain recording for its marginally fleeter performances and greater variety of repertoire and of organs employed. I made Werner Jacob’s EMI Triples set Recording of the Month and, as I’m inclined to prefer Marie-Claire Alain’s performances to his where the two sets overlap, I can’t withhold the same accolade from her. As the prices of the Alain and Rogg sets are so reasonable, however, and both have so much to offer, you might consider buying both and even adding the Jacob set. There would be no better way to demonstrate that slightly different interpretations of Bach’s organ music can be equally valid.

Brian Wilson