RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale Preludes Nos 1-45, BWV 599-644 [83:06] *
Canonic Variations on 'Von Himmel hoch, da komm ich her', BWV 769a [11:05] **
Meine Seele erhabt den Herren (Magnificat), BWV 733 [4:20] **
Helmut Walcha (organ)
rec. Schnitger Organ, Cappel, Germany. ADD: June 1950, September 1952, *; 9, 20-21 June 1950 **
PRISTINE AUDIO PAKM036 [52:06 + 46:03]
Helmut Walcha's (1907-1991) recordings of the Bach organ repertoire are amongst the most celebrated of the twentieth century for their magnificence, eloquence and perception. Walcha recorded more or less the entire repertoire twice, for DG … in mono from 1947 to 1952 and again in stereo between 1956 and 1971. It is the former, the mono series on the splendid Schnitger Organ in the church of Saints Peter and Paul in Cappel (the CD and Pristine Audio's website are inconsistent with the town's spelling) in Lower Saxony, which has been expertly transferred to two CDs by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio.
In fact, the lively, resonant and full sound is likely to be the first thing you notice. It's quite remarkable. True, there are moments of slight wow and flutter. But they really are very, very slight. There are no other 'artefacts', distortion or interference with our enjoyment of the music.
The Orgel-Büchlein, or Little Organ Book, was a product of Bach's years at the court in Weimar (1708-1714). Originally there were to have been 164 chorale preludes suited to all times of the liturgical year. Although there are traces of the 47th, only 46 were ever completed. The Orgel-Büchlein should be considered a collection in its own right of music for the instrument (chorale preludes are small-scale works based on chorale melodies), music for church services with implied religious affirmation, an exploration of compositional techniques, and even a teaching aid. CD 1 contains the first 28 chorale preludes of the Orgel-Büchlein, that is BWV 599 to 626; CD 2 the last 18, BWV627 to 644. The three versions of Christ ist erstanden, BWV 627 are recorded.
Walcha's understanding of Bach's purpose is evident in every note and bar. He plays with a dignity and detachment that eschew romantic overlay or intonation. That's not to say that the performances lack colour. They do not. His tempi and phrasing, for example, are full of meaning. Such a number as Christ lag in Todesbanden, BWV 625 [CD.1 tr.27], for example, is typical of the immense emotion (in this case a weighty and inescapable pain) which Walcha packs into less than a minute and a half … several of the chorale preludes in the Orgel-Büchlein last under a minute, many under two and few are longer than three.
It's thus necessary for a sensitive interpreter to understand the overall direction, and the traditions of Baroque provincial organ composition for that matter, in which Bach was working. The chorale preludes in the Orgel-Büchlein will not sound well if treated as an unrelated series of one-offs. Continuity, which is not the same as uniformity, is important. It's Walcha's immense experience of Bach and the organ as well as great insight into the religious purpose behind the Orgel-Büchlein that make these such valuable interpretations. And the fact that this understanding leads to a degree of variety whereby the particular import and impact of each prelude is fully communicated such that each is a delight on its own - despite forming part of a whole.
In a way this comes - paradoxically - from a refusal by Walcha to 'editorialise', to impose his own conception on Bach's music. When Bach was subdued (as in Das alte Jahr vergangen ist, BWV 614 [CD.1 tr.16], for example), Walcha is subdued; when exuberant (as in In Dir ist Freude, BWV 615, the very next prelude), Walcha is exuberant. This is classic and ultimately very satisfying playing.
No standalone CDs of Walcha's recordings of the Orgel-Büchlein alone seem to be available. Even if they were, these two Pristine Audio CDs retail for a price less than what they would cost. Even then, it's the stately and perceptive interpretation that truly recommends these recordings. When you consider the excellent sound quality, they're hard to resist.
It's good to have these classic and interpretatively superb recordings of one of Bach's most compelling organ works available. The transfer quality is almost as satisfying as the performance.