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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644 and Chorales
Francesco Cera (organ)
Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera/Diego Fasolis
Mascioni opus 1182 organ, Church of St. Maria Assunta/Giubiasco
rec. September 2011 (organ and solo soprano), November 2012 Auditorium Stelio Molo, Lugano (choir)
BRILLIANT CLASSICS 94639 [67:20 + 67:14]

The label’s PR blurb claims that this release is “an original concept: the Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644 performed alternating the organ chorale with the same chorale sung by a choir.” Perhaps not that original. Ton Koopman has done a similar thing with the Schübler Chorales (with his Amsterdam Baroque Choir, Warner) and Suzuki has turned to the Clavierübung III (aka German Organ Mass) in that way (Bach Collegium Japan, BIS). The Orgelbüchlein has been thus recorded by at least Kevin Bowyer (with Det Fynske Kammerkor, volume 7 of his complete Organ-Bach on Nimbus), Vincent Warnier (Ensemble Vocal Jean Sourisse, BNL), Helga Schauerte (Immortal Bach Ensemble, Syrius/BNL), and Helmut Rilling (with his first ensemble, the Stuttgart Figuralchor, on Cantate).
Lack of originality and PR-exaggerations cannot diminish the magnificence of this reading at all, though. Given that most of the above recordings are hard to come by, it’s actually surprising how few discs there are that follow this concept. It is, after all, immensely pleasing - even enlightening. Speaking of enlightening: at first I was disappointed that the Brilliant release places the organ works before the sung chorales, seeing how the organ pieces developed from the choral pieces, and not the other way around. That’s how the other recordings order these works - except for Schauerte, who alternates the order. After a couple dozen, ever-enthused listenings I’ve changed my mind, though. In fact, this order helps the shorter choral interludes gain in weight and become equal partners, not just notable appetizers. That’s not just fair but a bonus, because the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera under Diego Fasolis is one of the great strengths of this recording, and deserves every bit of the spotlight. Solo soprano duties in 14 chorales go to the equally lovely, moving Antonella Balducci, whose calm and darkly colored voice - with burnished hints of reed and wood and total lack of narcissism and bits of boyishness - puts the ears at divine ease.
Francesco Cera plays with that innate rhythm that establishes that irresistible, compelling pulse in Bach. His modern Mascioni opus 1182 organ (2008) of the ancient Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Giubiasco/Bellinzona (~1387), sounds clear and clean, strong, and confident. It is not at all bombastic or overwhelming; Bowyer’s Marcussen organ of Saint Hans/Odense tends in that direction. It’s neither chalky nor nasal as Warnier’s very fine French Grand Organ of St.Martin in Masevaux (Alfred Kern) does. Although it has a mechanical transmission, you can’t hear the nuts and bolts as you will, invariably, from the historical instrument in Luckau - in its own right a glorious Christoph Donat-built instrument - that Schauerte plays.
Det Fynske Kammerkor (Bowyers’ band) manages some chorales with almost chorister-like clarion-naïveté. The Immortal Bach Ensemble (and assorted soloists) impress with unparalleled transparency and pronounced rhythmic delivery. Here the Coro della Radiotelevisione Svizzera comes close, and adds an amount of heft that matches the organ and allows not having to record the voices too closely. Their contribution makes up for the only criticism I might muster - by providing very decent liner notes, Brilliant nixes another potential complaint in the bud - and that’s that the Mascioni organ sounds a little neutral compared the Luckau and Masevaux instruments. Well, that’s why I wouldn’t just want to have one recording of these works … but if I had to reduce to one, it would be Cera.
Jens F. Laurson