This is one of the many recordings of Bach's organ music released every year. It is understandable that almost every organist of fame wishes to make at least one Bach disc. Question is how many people - even ardent Bach lovers - are going to purchase such releases. An organist can make a difference by delivering a remarkable interpretation or choosing a rather unusual instrument. That is not the case here. The Silbermann organ of Arlesheim Cathedral is pretty well known and Nordstoga's interpretations are not fundamentally different from what is the standard in Bach interpretation these days.
I realize that this sounds a little negative, but I don't mean it that way. It is just a description of the facts. I have actually quite enjoyed this recording and Nordstoga's performances are generally very good. I can't quite figure out what the idea behind the programme is. The works here seem to have been chosen more or less at random, although most of the repertoire is from Bach's early years in Arnstadt, Mühlhausen and Weimar. The first disc is entirely devoted to the five concertos which Bach composed during his years in Weimar. It was the time that he became acquainted with the Italian concerto style which had a lasting influence on his development as a composer. The effect of his studies can be observed in, for instance, his violin concertos. It is very likely that the Weimar orchestra had various Italian concertos in its repertoire as the Duke of Sachsen-Weimar, Bach's employer, was a great lover of Italian music. Moreover, his half-brother, Prince Johann Ernst, went to study in Utrecht in the Netherlands, and purchased many collections of Italian concertos which had been printed in Amsterdam. He sent them to Weimar or brought them with him when he returned from the Netherlands. It is not easy to play such concertos on a large organ in a church as spacious as Arlesheim cathedral. Nordstoga has rightly opted for quite swift tempi in the fast movements, and that results in a lack of clarity here and there, for instance in the opening movements of BWV 592 and 593. Articulation which would be experienced as 'exaggerated' in a drier acoustic would have been a good idea. One of the virtues of these performances is the rhythmic suppleness and the exposition of the solo parts. The character of the original concertos has been pretty well realized.
These concertos were not played during the liturgy but rather in public concerts. Liturgical organ music is the subject of the second disc. It begins with one of Bach's chorale partitas, a genre very popular in the 17th century. Bach's contributions to the genre are inspired by Johann Pachelbel - teacher of his elder brother Johann Christoph - and by Georg Böhm who was probably his own teacher during his years in Lüneburg (1700-1702). There seems to be no direct relationship between the stanzas of the chorale Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig
and Bach's variations as the chorale appears in various numbers of stanzas. The chorale partita is rather a display of the variation techniques of the time.
The rest of the programme comprises arrangements of chorales using various techniques and textures. It was a good idea to play several arrangements of the same chorale which gives an impression of the different ways a chorale melody could be treated. Some pieces are especially familiar, such as Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott
and Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier
, two of the most expressive chorale arrangements. Nordstoga also plays two chorale settings: Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
(BWV 715) and Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend
(BWV 726) which are both from the so-called Arnstadt Chorales
. They give some impression of the way Bach used to accompany the singing of the congregation. Characteristic are the short interludes between the lines.
Nordstoga plays them with the appropriate registration. In general I am happy with the way he uses the stops of the organ. Unfortunately the booklet omits a list of registrations for every single piece. One could argue that he uses the tremulant a little too often. In the 10th variation of the chorale partita I would have preferred him not to have used it. The pedal is a bit too prominent in the fast movements of the Concerto
BWV 592. The tempi are mostly well chosen. However, Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier
could profit from a slightly slower tempo.
On the internet I found out that Kare Nordstoga has made more discs of organ works by Bach. This is the first time I have heard any of his performances and I quite like them. If you do too, it could also be useful to investigate his other recordings.
Johan van Veen
Previous review: Hannah Parry-Ridout