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RECORDING OF THE MONTH

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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Organ Concertos, Sonatas and Toccatas
Details after review
Konstantin Volostnov (Porthan Organ, St. Maria Cathedral, St. Petersburg)
rec. 2016. DDD
Organ specification and photograph included.
MELODIYA MELCD 1002523 [53:17 + 76:03 + 54:47]

Of all the wonderful music to which I return frequently, Bach and Vivaldi feature even ahead of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I recently chose a superb new SACD of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from Rachel Podger and Brecon Baroque (Channel CCSSA40318) as one of my Recordings of the Month – review – and I cannot in all fairness deny the same title to this Bach organ recital, a 3-CD set with one disc for each of three major categories of his works for the instrument.

I’ve been a long time putting this review together, partly for the very good reason that I’ve so much enjoyed listening to it and comparing the performances with my favourite Bach organ exponents. Partly, too, because a back problem has limited my time at the computer for several months. I did include a short indication of how much I had enjoyed the experience in my Winter 2017/18 – part 2 round-up and it may well be that readers have already taken the opportunity to obtain these recordings. I also made some comparisons, favourable to both, in reviewing the latest volume of David Goode’s recordings of Bach organ music in Spring 2018 – part 2. In the UK, only Amazon seem to stock the Melodiya CDs, but others offer them for streaming or downloading. David Goode on Signum is download only or as a Presto special CD.

While this review has been gestating, David Goode has produced an eighth volume and Harmonia Mundi have embarked on an ambitious project to record all Bach’s keyboard music – for organ and harpsichord – performed by Benjamin Alard. (Volume I: The young heir HMM902450/52). I haven’t been able to take in the Alard, except to note that it has been well received elsewhere and that the 24-bit download from eclassical.com is offered at the same price as 16-bit as an initial offer. (But the 16-bit at $44.56 is poor value when the CDs are on offer for £11.81 – regular price around £16.) Having dipped into this release, I expect to be able to recommend it when I review it – and Goode’s eighth volume – in due course.

I first came across Konstantin Volostnov via the Priory licensed version of his recording of music on the organ of Riga Cathedral. My colleague John France had wondered if having heard that wonderful instrument live had unduly influenced his enjoyment of that album, but my confirmation that it wasn’t received further support when I was kindly sent a copy of the Russian original CD. (PRCD1111 – review – KVCD008/ART334 – review).

That recording featured Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV532, of which I wrote ‘If you are looking for the Bach as it might have been heard played in the Thomaskirche in 1710, you should look elsewhere. Normally I fight shy of organists letting rip on instruments and with registration which would hardly have been imaginable in Bach’s day, for the same reason that I like only very selective recordings of Bach on the modern piano from the likes of Angela Hewitt1, greatly preferring the harpsichord in general … Purists may not approve but I have a strong feeling that Bach would have’. Those comments will serve equally well for the new 3-CD set.

A second recital, nominally of Russian Organ Music, also opens with Bach, the Passacaglia and fugue in c minor, BWV582. The wonderful new organ at the Moscow International Performing Arts Centre is even further than the Riga instrument from anything the composer might have imagined but once again I found any purist objections silenced by the quality of the performance, so I was pleased to hear that Volostnov was recording a 3-CD set of Bach organ music, this time on the Porthan organ of St Mary’s Lutheran Cathedral, St Petersburg, a modern instrument (2010) but modelled on the Silbermann organ of the Ponitz Friedenskirche (1737).

Bach is supposed to have disliked Silbermann’s meantone tuning, though that didn’t prevent Marie-Claire Alain making some fine recordings of his music on Silbermann organs2. In fact, there is evidence that, having inaugurated the magnificent instrument in the Dresden Frauenkirche, he changed his mind. His suggestions for improvements to Silbermann’s pianos, which at first were angrily received, were later acted on and met with his full approval, though it’s stretching things a little to say, as the notes do, that Silbermann perfected his organs through close co-operation with Bach.

Photographs of the organ and close-ups of the keyboards and stops are included in the booklet together with a complete specification of the stops. The tuning is half a tone higher than the modern norm, but the temperament is only loosely described (‘the older type … partly adapted to accommodate … all tonalities’). There’s nothing larger than 16-foot tone – one for the Hauptwerk (great) manual and two for the pedals – which makes the instrument ideal for a Bach sound closer to what the composer himself would have heard than with 32-foot allowed to let rip on some recordings.

As with my favourite recent exponents of Bach, it’s impossible to pin Volostnov down to one school of interpretation. He’s certainly not Schweitzer-type old school with lots of recourse to a big sound. Nor is he one of those younger performers who believe that authenticity means forgoing the emotional content in a rush to the end of the piece. Like Angela Hewitt, whose Bach I enjoy despite my dislike of hearing his music on the piano, he’s sui generis.

Rather than try to pull all my notes together into a rambling opus, I’m restricting myself to a few comparisons for each of the genres contained in this set: concertos, sonatas and toccatas. Two sources are self-selecting because one is complete, the other substantially so: Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus whose 8-CD set of mp3 files, 30 hours for £29.99 from Wyastone was a Bargain of the Month (use the code MusicWeb10 for 10% discount) – and Ton Koopman on the complete Warner Teldec Bach – Recording of the Month (deleted in that form but still available on 153 CDs, 9029570303; Koopman’s organ recordings are available separately on a 16-CD set 2564692817).

Other comparisons come from less complete recordings: Masaaki Suzuki (BIS), whose complete set of the sacred cantatas has won praise all round, as have his recordings of the secular cantatas, now almost complete. To date he has given us two Bach organ albums. Christopher Herrick’s Bach comes on several Hyperion albums devoted solely to JSB, and on various general collections.

CD1 of the Melodiya set offers the five genuine concertos by other composers which Bach re-composed for the organ – there are others for the harpsichord – but not the possibly spurious BWV597 in E-flat, for which no original is known. I’m a little disappointed at the omission: genuine or not, it’s an interesting work and there would have been room for it. Christopher Herrick includes it on a very fine collection (Bach: Organ Cornucopia, Hyperion CDA67139 – review – or Complete Organ Works CDS44121/36, 16 CDs – review – now download only from hyperion-records.co.uk).

Volostnov takes the outer movements of BWV594 at quite a fast pace, which I think suits the music well. By comparison, Ton Koopman, in the complete Teldec Bach edition, sounds slightly laboured. Even Masaaki Suzuki (BIS-2241, SACD – review review) sounds a trifle slow by comparison, though Suzuki compensates by making the second half of the finale ethereal in a way which Volostnov doesn’t quite match – Independent Labels, Jan/Feb 2017_2.

Marie-Claire Alain also takes the first movement of BWV594 rather sedately on her analogue set (details in footnote 2 below). Much as I like her way with Bach – and she’s no slouch in the other two movements, where she matches Volostnov’s tempi almost exactly – Volostnov gets my vote here. I’m not sure what organ she played here – Naxos Music Library uncharacteristically let themselves down here in the matter of documentation – but her chosen registration makes it sound a little less bright than the St Petersburg instrument.

Volostnov includes BWV571, described variously as a Fantasia or Concerto, though no original is known. Recordings of this are rare: I can locate for comparison only Christopher Herrick (Bach Organ Cornucopia – see above), Hans Fagius (BIS-379/80-CD, 2 CDs with Neumeister Chorales – downloaded in lossless sound with pdf booklet from eclassical.com), and Kevin Bowyer (Nimbus NI5647 – review – or complete works, as above). The Hyperion notes appear to accept the work as genuine, but it’s not listed in Malcolm Boyd’s Master Musicians book on Bach and the Nimbus notes suggest Johann Walther as the composer. Volostnov’s notes merely indicate that the authenticity has been disputed.

The Fagius set also includes Trio Sonata No.3, BWV527, which brings me to a consideration of CD2, on which Volostnov performs all six of these sonatas. Setting aside arrangements for instrumental ensembles, David Goode has recorded Nos. 1 and 2 as part of his ongoing foray into Bach’s complete organ music for Signum – download only, from hyperion-records.co.uk – or special-order CDs from Presto. Before embarking on that series, he made a recording on the Silbermann organ of Freiberg Cathedral, but the newer recordings have all been made in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Until Goode completes his series, it’s to Simon Preston’s highly-rated 14-CD set of Bach’s organ works that I turn for these sonatas (DG 4778628, around £60 on disc, download for around £36 [mp3] or £45 [lossless]). Preston opens No.3 comparatively deliberately, taking almost a minute longer than Volostnov in the first movement. Preston gains in clarity of articulation; Volostnov scores by dint of sheer energy and enthusiasm and a brighter instrument and registration, even if his tempo seems a little fast for a movement marked andante. There’s very little to choose between the two accounts of the adagio e dolce second movement – both seem to me to bring off to perfection both parts of that direction. Volostnov is again a trifle faster in the finale, but both Preston and he achieve a real sense of vivace. Volostnov, overall, at least matches Preston in this sonata, with the older player bringing out the articulation more clearly, his younger rival achieving a greater sense of enthusiasm; I don’t want to make too much of the distinction when both deserve a strong recommendation.

On to CD3, which I suspect will for most people be the most popular. I suppose that any collection of the toccatas would have to include BWV565: whoever composed it – probably not Bach – it’s a stunning work and there are simply too many fine performances to make any meaningful comparison. I’ll simply note that Volostnov takes both parts, especially the fugue, characteristically, at a fair pace – to take just one recent example, his times of 2:21 and 5:26 compare with 2:27 and 6:12 from Suzuki on the Schnitger organ of the Martinikerk, Groningen (BIS-SACD-2111) of which Dan Morgan thought so highly – review. If Suzuki brings new light to bear on that old warhorse with this award-winning recording, so does Volostnov.

BWV566 may be less well known than its predecessor in the Schmieder catalogue; it’s another work which, though authentic, dates from early in Bach’s career when he was much influenced by Böhm and Buxtehude, but Volostnov gives as persuasive a performance as any. One advantage of the Melodiya recording over that of, say, Kevin Bowyer, is that the four sections are separately tracked whereas Nimbus present Bowyer’s performance on one track (NI5423 or NI7077, 2 CDs for around the price of one, or the bargain-price mp3 edition listed above).

Ton Koopman, not usually known for slow tempi, takes 8:21 in the toccata of BWV540 on his complete Warner Teldec recording, and one’s impression is that this is about as fast as the music could and should go. His timing is matched almost to the second by Gillian Weir on Bach’s own Thomaskirche organ (Priory PRCD800, 2 CDs), while David Goode is seconds slower again at 8:25 (Signum SIGCD803). If all three are roughly agreed on the tempo, how can Konstantin Volostnov make the movement work at 7:32? Surely it would have to sound scrambled? But it doesn’t: forget these other more established names for the moment and enjoy a performance the equal of theirs.

Volostnov is more in line with general thinking in the fugue of BWV540, at 5:04 – marginally slower than Koopman, but faster than Goode and much faster than Weir, who on this occasion, sounds a little ponderous but gains by bringing out the grandeur of the music rather more.

The Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564, is one of Bach’s most remarkable works. By chance Gillian Weir’s Argo recording has recently been reissued (4883216, with Fantasia, BWV572, Trio Sonata No.1 and Passacaglia in c minor, BWV582, download only). She gives a wonderfully free-wheeling and sensitive performance on the Marcussen organ of St Laurenskerk in Rotterdam, a large and versatile instrument.

Volostnov matches Weir’s vivacity in the first movement and her exciting finale, but he takes the central adagio more quickly. It emerges as a different-sounding piece of music at what I think is a little too fast a pace. I’d therefore place Weir ahead on points, but I still enjoyed Volostnov’s interpretation.

The d-minor Toccata and Fugue, BWV538, known as the ‘Dorian’, with which Volstonov aptly concludes this survey, features on Volume 8, the latest in David Goode’s series of recordings on the organ of Trinity College Cambridge (SIGCD808, reviewed as 24-bit download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk). It’s also available inter alia from Peter Hurford on a budget twofer (Double Decca 4434852), and on Christopher Herrick’s mid-price album of Toccatas and Fugues for Hyperion (CDA30004 – review of earlier release – CD or download with pdf booklet for £6.50 from hyperion-records.co.uk).

Volostnov is appreciably speedier than Goode, Hurford and John Butt (Harmonia Mundi HMU907249, download only, budget price), about a minute faster in each section, but only seconds faster than Herrick. Is it the case that youthful enthusiasm gets the better of the musical content here? I think not: if you have the enviable brain- feet- and finger-power to play the piece at this speed, as Volostnov and Herrick clearly have, without coming off the track, the music certainly lends itself to it.

My analogy would be the finale of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, taken at quite a lick by Bruno Walter on his mono recording with the New York Phil, which I owned on Philips many years ago, and where the quality of the playing fully justifies the tempo. When Walter re-recorded the Beethoven symphonies in stereo, the Columbia Symphony Orchestra, an ad hoc group without the prowess of the NY Phil, even at a slightly slower tempo, sounded in imminent danger of crashing, though they didn’t quite do so. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can hear Walter’s stereo versions of all the Beethoven symphonies there.

Does that mean that all other approaches to BWV538 sound dull? Certainly, Goode is noticeably a little more deliberate than Volostnov and Herrick in the toccata, but he keeps the music moving forward, which is the important thing, and his slightly more serious approach to the fugue perhaps just has the edge. Nothing about this opening work on volume 8 of Goode’s complete edition, which I hope to review in more detail soon, is other than very encouraging.

If I had to nominate a single CD of Bach’s organ music for my Desert Island, the Herrick would have a strong claim, but an older recording from Helmut Walcha, still available on a budget-price DG twofer, comes from the organist who first introduced me to Bach’s organ music. (4530642, download only.) The automatic assumption is that older performers took Bach much too slowly, but Karl Richter’s recordings of the cantatas, recently reissued on two blu-ray discs or on five download packages, belie that assumption, and so do many of Walcha’s recordings: his Art of Fugue remains one of my favourite versions (E4776508, 2 CDs, download only – DL Roundup July 2009. NB: Passionato link obsolete.).

Walcha plays the toccata of BWV538 very deliberately, taking 6:03 against Volostnov’s 4:26, but his tempo for the fugue is faster than Goode’s and very little slower than Volostnov’s. Surely the toccata sounds plodding at that tempo? Just the reverse: like all the organists mentioned above, Walcha holds my attention all through – I’m not sure that this isn’t my benchmark recording, even after all these years, and his Schnitger organ, in the Laurenskerk in Alkmaar is still in many ways my ideal Bach sound, even though Walcha’s recordings were made before its Flentrop restoration. All serious lovers of Bach’s organ music should have at least one Walcha recording, preferably at least the DG 2-CD set or, better still, their complete edition (DG Collectors Edition E4637122, download only, around £40 [mp3] or £50 [lossless]).

Overall, then, Volsotnov's set joins my top Bach organ choices. The performances are all the more recommendable because the recording throughout is miles removed from the sub-standard offerings which used to emanate from Russia in the LP age; it’s not put to shame even by the BIS SACD and 24-bit or the Signum in 24-bit format.

Not the least of the virtues of this new Melodiya set is the quality of the English translation – a real plus when so many record companies entrust a non-Anglophone with the task, or even seem to resort to computer translations, and the result is gibberish. At one time, even the great DG – still known then as DGG – advised on their inner LP sleeves that there were ‘special clothes [sic] for cleaning this record’. The Russian translator of a Supraphon sleeve note, unable to muster a Cyrillic transcription of Down Ampney, transferred Vaughan Williams’ birth to London. The translation in the Melodiya booklet is mercifully clear and idiomatic. Bad translation is not one-way traffic, of course, as witness the recent debacle of the UK Brexit White Paper rendered in gibberish German, apparently knocked off with the aid of Google translation.

Mention is made in the notes of the Prelude and Fugue, BWV541, and the Fugue, BWV543. Was it originally intended to include these on CD3? There would have been enough space. BWV541 receives a fine performance on Goode’s volume 7, and BWV543 is available on Hurford’s Double Decca, but I should have welcomed Volostnov’s take on the music. One for the future, perhaps? I certainly hope that he will give us more Bach: there’s a lot more very fine music for him to give us at least another CD of the Toccatas and Fugues. And how about some of the Chorale Preludes?

There are many ways of playing Bach’s organ music and no one way has a monopoly. I still listen with great pleasure to Helmut Walcha’s classic recordings and also to the more ‘authentic’ style of such as John Butt and Masaaki Suzuki. I’m equally pleased with this new recording from Konstantin Volostnov, whose enthusiastic performances on a replica of an organ from Bach’s time seem to me to capture the spirit of the music as well as any that I have mentioned. If the tempi are often on the fast side, the quality of the playing makes them fit admirably. Strongly recommended.

1 Hyperion offer a 15-CD of her Bach performances at a hyper-budget price (CDS44421/35).

2 two sets of her Bach recordings remain available on Erato: in 1980s analogue sound and 1990s digital remakes (2564699028, 15 CDs, and 2564676018, 14 CDs, respectively), each available for around £36. Single-CD selections remain available, some as downloads only at super-budget price. Subscribers to Naxos Music Library can stream the analogue set there. (NO booklet).

Brian Wilson

Contents

CD1: Organ Concertos (1713/4?):
in a minor, BWV593 (after Vivaldi RV522) [10:32]
in G, BWV592 (after Prince Johann Ernst) [6:47]
in C, BWV595 (after Prince Johann Ernst) [3:31]
in d minor, BWV596 (after Vivaldi, RV565) [9:19]
in G, BWV571 (Fantasia, unknown original) (spurious? 1720?) [6:45]
in C, BWV594 (after Vivaldi, RV208) [16:19]

CD2: Organ (Trio) Sonatas (c.1727?):
No.1 in E-flat, BWV525 [13:34]
No.2 in c minor, BWV526 [10:50]
No.3 in d minor, BWV527 [14:40]
No.4 in e minor, BWV528 [9:21]
No.5 in C, BWV529 [13:12]
No.6 in G, BWV530 [14:15]

CD3: Toccatas:
Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV565 (possibly spurious, before 1708?) [7:47]
Toccata in E, BWV566 (before 1708?) [9:29]
Toccata and Fugue in F, BWV540 (1708-17?) [12:36]
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV564 (1708-1745?) [13:21]
Toccata and Fugue in d minor, BWV538 (1708-17) [11:26]

 

 




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