Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale Preludes II, BWV645-650 ‘Schübler Chorales’ [19:39]
Chorale Preludes III, BWV651-668 ‘Leipzig Chorales’ (‘The Great Eighteen’) [96:55]
Variations on ‘Von Himmel Hoch, da komm ich her’ BWV 769 [13:40]
Kåre Nordstoga (Organ)
rec. St. Martin’s Church, Groningen, Netherlands, 6-8 May 2012.
Booklet includes organ specification
LAWO CLASSICS LWC1056 [2CDs: 70:30 + 60:23]

I’ve come across Kåre Nordstoga in some fine Bach recordings for the Simax label, as well as part of an ECM album called Maria’s Song (see review), so I was intrigued by the promising prospect of wallowing in a new two disc set of Chorale Preludes. This is the second volume of a continuing series from the Norwegian LAWO label, the first of which was reviewed but not universally admired by Hannah Parry-Ridout. Johan van Veen enjoyed the recording but didn’t consider it added anything new to standard interpretations (see review).
This second release takes us not only into SACD recording territory but also to a different location, that of St. Martin’s Church or Martinikerk in Groningen. The instrument used is designated the Schnitger Organ of 1692, though Arp Schnitger also reused features of an instrument which dates centuries older – not that any information is provided in the booklet other than a listing of registrations. Schnitger commonly rebuilt or expanded existing organs and is justifiably credited as one of the most important figures in organ history.
This instrument has a gorgeously gentle tone, the antithesis of French pungency and a sound which pleasantly emphasises the lyrical qualities of Bach’s Chorale Preludes, though I can imagine some listeners preferring more contrast between registers, or just more dynamics in general. I happened to be reviewing another Bach organ recording at the same time as this one, with David Goode playing the 1714 Silbermann organ of Freiberg Cathedral (see review). This organ is an entirely different beast, with bright upper partials and a vibe more likely to keep you awake, though admittedly the disc referred to is also an entirely different sort of programme. Comparison can be made with the lovely Chorale Prelude BWV654, ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’, the Silbermann organ’s rendering of the melody singing through with a more penetrating but still highly expressive tone, where the Schnitger organ’s chosen registrations brings the accompaniment closer to the melody in terms of sound.
I know the Martinikerk quite well and would be interested to have seen how the engineers set up their microphones. The Schnitger organ is a superb instrument with unique features which include the only original 24-foot pipes still in existence from this maker. It has a gorgeous, rich sonority, but by no means sounds dull. There are clues to the upper registers in some of the pieces, such as BWV 655 or BWV 661, but I can’t help feeling we’re missing something of the spectrum of sound you would hope to achieve from ideal microphone placement. I’ve tried this recording on numerous systems and through both speakers and headphones. The strength of this recording is in its spaciousness, a quality emphasised by the SACD layer but pretty stunning in plain stereo. In achieving this the organ is a touch too distant to deliver true detail, though the impression is similar to that from being at the venue in a prime central seat.
The results are by no means unpleasant, and if you are looking for total-immersion Bach then this might be the ideal place. If you seek something sparkling and inspirational then this probably won’t tick all of your boxes, but bear in mind that this is what can happen when you programme by the BWV number rather than creating contrasting recital discs in the way Kevin Bowyer opted to in his excellent Nimbus complete Bach edition (see review). Kåre Nordstoga’s playing is very good indeed. He keeps steady tempi and doesn’t go in for elaborate ornamentation. A slightly more improvisatory feel might have helped things along a little but this is a question of taste. Nordstoga is no sentimentalist, and what you have here are performances filled with Lutheran seriousness – the kind of thing which would have pleased Bach’s employers no end. What I miss is the sense Bach can give us that we are being raised on high in the palm of our Creator. Take that moving piece Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich hiermit, BWV 668: This would seem guaranteed to stir something in us, if nothing since it was written by Bach on his deathbed and has often been used as a reverential and artificially imposed conclusion to the incomplete Art of Fugue. Kåre Nordstoga’s straight reading by no means offends, but neither does it transport us into the realms of timeless eternity.
Dominy Clements
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