Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Arrangements by Max Reger
Toccata BWV 910 [12:05]
Toccata BWV 914 [8:30]
Toccata BWV 915 [10:45]
Toccata BWV 913 [8:00]
Toccata BWV 912 [13:08]
Toccata BWV 916 [9:31]
Toccata BWV 911 [12:36]
Christoph Schoener (organs of St. Michealis-Church, Hamburg)
rec. May 2016

I very much enjoyed Christoph Schoener’s previous Reger recording from this location (review), so was immediately attracted by the idea of hearing the same composer’s Bach Toccata transcriptions in the same acoustic and on such fine instruments.

Max Reger was a lifelong devotee of Bach’s music, seeing him as a “godlike old fellow” and adhering to and developing his models when it came to his own compositions. When performing Bach he was keen to avoid playing the elder master “by the metronome”, urging expressiveness and for the performer to “listen to your heart.” Academics both today and in Reger’s times might disagree with this approach, but I always recall my lessons with Gareth Morris, who was happy to remind me how many children Bach had fathered, so that ‘sexy thoughts’ were deemed permissible at all times, even when performing his music. Expressive warmth and romance with a small ‘r’ is all part of the package.

Reger’s transcriptions can justly be seen as arrangements, such is the creative input he brought to the scores. This is not to say that the identity of these familiar masterpieces is distorted beyond recognition, but nor are they works ‘written for one instrumental medium and dumped on another’, to paraphrase Johannes Adam’s booklet notes. Reger added marks of expression and dynamic instructions, and the registers of the organ are of course used to enhance these and other effects. These versions are however not particularly thick or bombastic, and while purists may frown at the romantic nature of some of the content they always work very well indeed on their own terms, with Schoener’s tempi delivering plenty of the energy you would expect from the originals. There is of course a balance to be found between speed and clarity, but even in the dancing complexities of BWV 915 the rhythmic sensation emerges well enough.

Reger did not arrange all of Bach’s occatas, and so BWV 914 and 916 are Christoph Schoener’s own versions, the second of these played on the smaller Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach Orgel which divertingly appears on the left of the soundstage. You wouldn’t necessarily spot these as an exception to the series, though Schoener performs each without embellishment so you might just imagine Reger was having a day off when it came to detailed arranging. The programming for the disc as a whole works very well, with key relationships transitioning smoothly and contrasts of mood taken into consideration.

The recording for this release puts more of an emphasis on the ambience and acoustic of the St. Michaelis-Church than you might expect, though even through the rich resonance most of the detail in the music comes through nicely, even in standard stereo. The surround-sound effect is sensational and bass from the larger pipes is also satisfying where it turns up, in BWV 913 for instance. You need to turn the volume up a little more than usual to obtain the best effect, but once tuned in the rewards are plentiful.

Dominy Clements

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