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Strictly speaking we don’t need another single-CD collection of Bach’s organ music, even with the subtitle of music composed in and for Leipzig. I am,
nevertheless very pleased that Philippe Herreweghe has invited Maude Gratton to make this recording for his own PHI – friends of Philippe – label. Don’t be
put off by the odd cover shot of a dried-up leaf.
She has a number of recordings to her credit on the piano, harpsichord, fortepiano and clavecin, including an award-winning album of W F Bach keyboard
concertos (Mirare MIR162 – review –
Download News 2016/1) but this seems to be her first solo
organ recording, though she was the organist in a programme of vocal and instrumental music by Matthias Weckmann (1615-1674) (Conjuratio, MIR204 –
downloaded in 24/88.1 sound from eclassical.com, with pdf booklet containing
texts and translations).
I thought that I had reviewed the Weckmann recording, released in 2013, but I appear not to have done so. Let me say, then, that it makes a thoroughly
enjoyable complement to the complete recording of Weckmann’s organ and sacred music, on a budget-price 5-CD Ricercar set from Bernard Fouccroulle (organ)
with the Ricercar Consort and Ensemble La Fenice (RIC369, around £24). If that set seems too big to digest in one go, Conjuratio makes a very
desirable shorter alternative. It offers a mix of sacred concertos and attractive organ works in performances by Maria Keohane (soprano), Carlos Mena
(alto), Hans-Jörg Mammel (tenor), Stephan MacLeod (bass), Ricercar Consort/Philippe Pierlot, with Gratton playing the organ.
She recorded the solo works on Conjuratio on a 1687 Schnitger organ at Steinkirchen but, like Marie Claire Alain, she has chosen to record Bach on a
Silbermann. It’s a fine-looking instrument to judge from the photograph in the booklet and its bright sound is well suited to Bach’s two-manual music,
though the action can be slightly distractingly noisy, as in the quieter passages of Organ Sonata No.4.
The sound which she conjures from the Ponitz instrument is clear and crisp, though by no means clinical. Though the Hauptwerk or principal manual
offers a 16' Bordun stop and the pedals a 16' Principal-Baß and a 16' Posaunen-Baß, these are used sparingly. That doesn’t mean that
it’s not capable of a grand sound when required – and Gratton requires it where appropriate: there’s nothing under-characterised about these performances.
The two halves of BWV552 represent the only pairing of prelude and fugue to have been published in Bach’s lifetime (Clavierübung III, 1732). The
fortuitous similarity of the opening of the Fugue to the hymn ‘O God our help in ages past’ has led to its being known in English-speaking countries as ‘St
Anne’, the name of the hymn tune. It’s a work which I got to know from the classic Bach recordings of Helmut Walcha on DG Archiv. Though most of
these have disappeared, except as downloads, by chance BWV552 survives on a DG Originals recording (E4577042) and the 12-CD set can be streamed by
subscribers from Qobuz and purchased less expensively in mp3 or lossless sound from Presto (E4637122, download only).
In the box set Walcha separates the halves of BWV552 before and after the rest of Clavierübung III, as published (BWV669-689), and his performances
are slightly more spacious than Gratton’s, though never allowed to drag. The Archiv recording has held up well and this remains my benchmark for the work.
Gratton plays the prelude and fugue consecutively, which most listeners will prefer, and holds her own even in direct comparison with the old master.
Three of the great chorale preludes are included in performances more than good enough to make the listener who has yet to hear the whole set of eighteen
seek out a recording of them all, as on Gillian Weir’s 2-CD set on the Thomaskirche organ (Priory PRCD800) or Helmut Walcha’s 12-disc DG Archiv Collectors
Edition mentioned above.
The notes are very good, detailing, for example, for the specialist the various origins of the components of the Trio Sonata No.4 without perplexing the
general listener. The only extra information that I could have desired would have been the registration employed for each piece. They contain a corrective
to the view that the Chorale Vor deinen Thron, BWV668, inserted after Bach’s death and incomplete, like the Art of Fugue, was his deathbed
work. It now appears to have been much earlier. Another illusion shattered: I’d always taken the story on trust.
I listened first to the recording as a press preview download from Outhere, the music group to which the PHI label belongs, in 256kb/s mp3. That’s far from
ideal, especially for such demanding music as Bach’s organ works, so I waited to finalise this review until it appeared in 24-bit sound from eclassical.com. In that format it sounds very well indeed, apart
from a tendency for the reverberation at the end of each piece to be cut rather short. That may simply reflect the acoustic of the venue; if so, it’s
preferable to adding artificial reverb.
This is not ‘just another’ Bach organ recital: it’s recommended to beginners
and old hands alike.