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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Clavierübung Part III
James Johnstone (organ)
rec. 11-15 January 2012, Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway
METRONOME METCD1094 [2 CDs: 107:26]

The twin mantras of completeness and authenticity, which have been such significant drivers in the field of early music recordings since the advent of the CD, come into direct conflict with the third of Bach’s Clavierübung. Completeness demands the inclusion not only of all the chorale preludes, largely alternating in Bach’s original between those for large organ with pedals and “manualiter” preludes, seemingly intended for a smaller, pedal-less instrument, as well as the four duetti which do not, in the minds of some scholars, appear to be intended for the organ at all. Authenticity demands that the 27 individual numbers be presented as closely as possible to what Bach intended and on the kind of instrument he intended them to be played on. Self-evidently he never intended them to be played in one sitting or on a single instrument, and while many recordings have addressed the problem by using more than one instrument or dispensing with those awkward duetti altogether, most recent releases have simply opted out of making such a judgement and thrown everything together on a single instrument leaving it to the listener, through their pre-programmable CD players or their painstakingly ordered transfers to a playlist, to decide how best to hear the Clavierübung III.

On that basis, the raw material offered by James Johnstone is exceptionally fertile. Individual items stand well on their own, his delicate registrations for the duetti make excellent musical and stylistic sense, his handling of the manualiter preludes affords them a stature they often lose in close juxtaposition with their bigger counterparts, while the large works, including the mighty Prelude and Fugue in E flat which frames the entire collection, have a suitably commanding presence. As a player, Johnstone has a tremendously agile technique (beautifully displayed in the first Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam prelude) and a superb keyboard facility which is well suited to the intimacy of the four duetti. He brings this to the bigger works, too, but here things are a little obscured by the organ itself, something best revealed in a remarkably solid account of the first Aus tiefer Noth schrei ich zu dir prelude.
From the opening Prelude it is immediately clear that this is a hefty organ which roars in its pleno with true Baroque grandeur. It is a good choice of instrument for authenticity’s sake, dating from around the time that Bach wrote the Clavierübung III and, moreover, built by Joachim Wagner who was, for a time, an apprentice with Silbermann. Built in Berlin in 1739 and shipped to Trondheim some 18 months later (its detailed history is well documented in the booklet), it was restored to close to its original state by Ahrend in 1994, who modified its Werkmeister II temperament to one which will not jar too heavily on those ears more easily accustomed to modern-day equal temperament. It would have been good to have Johnstone’s registrations mapped out in the booklet (as Stephen Farr does in his Resonus recording – RES10120 – which is about the closest comparison to this recording) but it is not difficult to decipher what stops are being used from the given specification details and, in any case, Johnstone’s focus (like Farr’s) is clearly a presentation of the music rather than a demonstration of an interesting instrument. (Farr, for the record, performs on the 1975 Meltzer instrument of Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge; an instrument based around the earlier Father Smith organs of 1694 and 1706). It would have been good to have had some visuals of the console in the booklet, although Metronome have included (twice) a picture of the organ case – and a pretty impressive piece of design it is too.
Risking the wrath of the authentic brigade, I prefer the smoother and richer sound of the Metzler, but Johnstone extracts some genuinely lovely sounds in the manualiter preludes where his agile fingerwork is nicely complemented by the delicate flutes of the Trondheim Wagner. It is in the gentler chorale preludes that Johnstone seems most at ease and delivers fluent and compelling performances, contrasting the often elaborate accompaniment texture with a clear and positive sense of the choral line. This comes particularly into its own in a lovely – if vaguely soporific - account of the BWV678 Dies sind die heilgen zehen with its intriguing canonic statement of the chorale above a gently flowing duet accompaniment. It is followed by an almost breathless romp through the chorale’s manualiter prelude which occasionally seems at risk of tying itself up into knots – although it never quite does. The weakness of Johnstone’s set is revealed in what comes next, a heavy Wir glauben all an einen Gott where a mixture of an authentic approach to pedalling and the thick pleno give it a very lumpy and disjointed feel.
These are performances which show a great deal of intelligent stylistic thought, and while each individual piece stands on its own merits, overall there is a certain lack of coherence which does nothing to persuade me that presenting the Clavierübung III – or at least listening to it – in a single sitting does Bach’s original creation any favours. Dip into it, select and order items to a playlist, but do not make the mistake of taking it all in one go.
Marc Rochester



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