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
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
. 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
good to hear less frequently heard Chaconnes
. 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