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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
The Young J.S. Bach
Prelude & Fugue in C, BWV 531 [6:58]
Chorales for Advent, Christmas and New Year [10:50]
Chorales for the Feast of the Purification [4:51]
Chorales for General Faith [6:35]
Chorales for Penitence and Forgiveness [10:24]
Canzona in d, BWV 588 [7:11]
Chorales for the Dying [4:42]
Chorales for Funerals and Burials [6:47]
Partite diverse sopra: O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV 767 [18:36]
Fantasia in C, BWV 570 [2:38]
Catechism Chorales [10:04]
Prelude & Fugue in A, BWV 536 [7:24]
Chorales for times of trouble [12:43]
Allabreve, BWV 589 [5:38]
Chorales for Lent and Passiontide [26:40]
Toccata & Fugue in d, BWV 565 [9:08]
Andrew Arthur (organ)
rec. Chapel of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, 8-9 December 2015
PRIORY PRCD1176 [78:55 + 76:36]

As much as this release is titled ‘The Young J.S. Bach’, it might equally but less elegantly be called the ‘scaled-down’ Bach because of the circumstances of its recording. Age also does not signal immaturity, as this is a recital of Bach the precocious genius, ending in no less than his Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Yes, that one.

The ‘youth’ aspect of this programme might also be inspired by the age of the Carsten Lund instrument played by Andrew Arthur, which is now just past its tenth year as resident organ in the Chapel of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. As is usual for the Priory label, a full organ specification is given, but possibly of as much interest would be information on the venue, which is the smallest of the Cambridge college chapels, and on the evidence of this recording has a reverberation time, I’m guessing, in the order of one second. That makes for an unconventional organ soundscape, and as Arthur himself observes in the liner notes, regarding BWV 565, “to imagine a vast instrumental thundering into a cavernous cathedral” but then “the relatively small instrument and acoustic captured on this recording … inevitably challenges such preconceptions for performer and listener alike”.

Two essential elements of this recital normalise such expectations and make it work splendidly: the indestructible music of J S Bach, and the astute and authoritative musicianship of Andrew Arthur. Add to that the limpid sonic beauty of the Carsten Lund Organ and an ideally balanced recording, and this production takes a special place in the Bach organ discography.

The thirty-eight chorales in the programme come from the eighty-two making up the so-called ‘Neumeister Chorales’, discovered in 1984, with the rest by other members of the Bach family and sundry composers including Pachelbel. J S Bach’s are believed to date from c.1695-1705, putting him in his adolescent years, but already a fully functioning composer even if, as Arthur observes, the works are of relative simplicity with occasional contrapuntal weakness. On this recording, they are thematically grouped and interspersed with seven previously known pieces from the same period. Glancing through the themes of the chorales, I initially thought this was to leaven the listening experience, but then encountering, say, the two quite jolly little numbers for the dying, I changed my mind, and decided it was just good programming!

Where Arthur succeeds is in his clean articulation and finely judged registration and tempos, which make his playing seem so ‘right’ for this organ and its surroundings. Those of the size-matters school may be agreeably surprised to hear the D minor Toccata & Fugue as resoundingly inspirational as ever, with the bonus now of an additional clarity that informs its more intricate passages, as it does for all the other pieces.

For many listeners, Bach’s chorale settings on these discs will be new, given their relatively recent discovery, and provide rewarding insights, through their invention, beauty and emotional range, into his already flowering greatness. With Andrew Arthur’s impeccable touch and grace, they could be no better advocated than they are here.

Des Hutchinson



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