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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080 [81:12]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Canon in D major [6:40]
Chaconne in F major [7:48]
Chorale Preludes von der geburt Christi [45:19]
Chaconne in D major [5:54]
Barbara Harbach (organ)
rec. 1983, Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York (Bach), and 1990, Slee Hall, State University of Buffalo, New York (Pachelbel)
MSR CLASSICS MS 1442 [70:00 + 78:53]

This is a fine recording and Barbara Harbach performs well, but I am sorry to say I can’t muster much enthusiasm for this release as a whole. Bach’s The Art of Fugue is fascinating but needs much contrast of colour and a certain amount of fantasy in performance to bring the music to life. This is perhaps easier with an ensemble though this is also no guarantee of success. Organ players have plenty of stops to muck about with, and Bach’s lack of instructions with regard to speeds can be seen as an opportunity rather than a problem.

The instrument used by Barbara Harbach is a good one, but doesn’t have the character to keep up my interest. There are some nice contrasts of registration but there are long swathes where colours stay pretty much the same, resulting in an unfortunate blandness over extended listening. Harbach’s playing is efficient but lacks playfulness, is dutiful rather than exploratory. If our ideal is to make Bach sound freshly minted and improvisatory we’ve steered a wrong course in this instance.

There are some organ recordings of BWV 1080 which do better in some regards. Terje Winge on Simax (see review) has the advantage of an instrument with a little more sparkle, though this is also playing which is more artful than inspiring. I enjoyed Gerhard Weinberger’s complete Bach set on the CPO label some time ago (see review), and returning to his Art of Fugue makes me appreciate it even more after the Harbach experience. Weinberg brings a sense of poetry to the music which carries us forward and keeps us engaged and inspired, as does Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus (see review). Bowyer’s playing is even more buoyant than Weinberg’s, and with greater clarity and superb recorded range and colour from his Danish instrument this would be my all-round organ choice for this work.

Harbach concludes her BWV 1080 with a grand performance of the famously unfinished Contrapunctus XVIII and rounds everything off nicely with the quietly expressive chorale Komm süsser Tod, BWV 478. Johann Pachelbel is brought in to make up the musical value for the rest of CD 2, and aside from the ubiquitous Canon in D it is good to hear less frequently heard Chaconnes and Chorale Preludes. I’m afraid they do not dispel the feeling that these pieces deserve more life and sparkle. Harbach is rhythmically stable to a fault, making for very four-square interpretations of pieces which should have as much vocal expression as you can muster through a big mechanical instrument. Everything here is very good, but there are no surprises or any sense that, once drawn in, you are being given carefully shaped musical narratives which will connect with and elevate some part of your soul that you’d never realised existed.

Dominy Clements