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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale Partita: Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, BWV770 [13:26]
Chorale Partita: Christ, der du bist der helle Tag, BWV766 [8:12]
Chorale Partita: O Gott, du frommer Gott, BWV767 [15:06]
Chorale Partita: Sei gegrüẞet, Jesu gütig, BWV768 [18:01]
Stephen Farr (organ)
rec. 2018, Fairwarp, Sussex, UK RESONUSRES10234 [55:45]
Organ aficionados heading to this review on the not unreasonable assumption that Stephen Farr will be returning to his winning ways as a Bach interpreter on disc as revealed in his 2016 release for Resonus of the Clavierübung III, will possibly be brought up short by the recording location in the semi-rural English county of East Sussex. Musically, East Sussex is known principally for the opera house built in the private grounds of a large house, Glyndebourne, and, at the other end of the scale, for the Victorian pier-end entertainments which, in the heyday of Brighton as the “London by the Sea” attracted the kind of crowds who would never been seen dead at Glyndebourne (largely because they could not have afforded to). Gerald Norris’s fascinating Musical Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland devotes just four-and-a-half pages to East Sussex (compared with, say, seven for the neighbouring county of Surrey), and in rooting around for famous musical names with associations to the place, reveals that Frank Bridge was born there, Havergal Brian lived there for a time, and that a veritable host of major 19th century musicians made short excursions there – these included Liszt, Paganini, Dvořák, Grieg, Rossini, Glazunov, Debussy, Johann Strauss I and John Philip Sousa. It makes no mention of any native East Sussex organists, although several travelled there and promptly died – Richard Redhead, Herbert Oakeley and Thomas Attwood Walmisley – possibly as a result of the horror of finding very few notable organs there. While there are cathedrals a-plenty in the adjoining counties (both Kent and West Sussex boast two apiece) East Sussex apparently possesses few organs of a quality and in a building suitable for the intense scrutiny of a digital recording.
A Londoner by birth who made frequent excursions to East Sussex and got to know the county pretty much inside-out, I know Fairwarp only as a picture-postcard village near Uckfield boasting an attractive, old but small parish church in which is housed, according to the National Pipe Organ Register, an eight-stop J W Walker organ of 1922 on which, I would imagine, any note of Bach sounds decidedly unenticing (although I may be doing it a major disservice). But despite the size of the village – the population is just under 400 – there is another organ there, and that is the instrument used for this recording. Situated in a private house and built by the French builder Bernard Aubertin in 2015, it has 30 speaking stops spread over three manuals and pedals, and certainly looks very attractive if the booklet photographs are anything to go by.
It is certainly an interesting choice for Farr to select as his instrument for this recording of four of Bach’s Chorale Partitas, if one which will not be to everyone’s taste. It is certainly, for all its size, a very intimate instrument, which turns the big, grandstanding conclusion of BWV768 into something of a suppressed squawk, and invokes a sound from the pedal 16 foot reed (a Buzène) for all the world like the growling of the family dog. But the logic of choosing this instrument is much more apparent in the earlier variations and in the other, less heavyweight, Partitas recorded here. There are enchanting flutes, caressing mutations and an overall sense of domesticity which transforms these into personal reflections on the chorales rather than clever examples of Bach’s technical prowess. The innocent duet between a Dulcimeau and Bourdon in the first variation of BWV766 is the perfect sound to convey a sense of the organist contemplating over the text, sharing his thoughts in the intimate surroundings of a family home with like-minded friends. While that may exclude those who like their Bach big, bold and Teutonic, it entices those with rather more open minds who are amenable to the clear and very individual ideas Farr has for this music.
There might be a sense that the organ has not quite bedded down, that it has yet to merge into its surroundings, but that comes not with any sharp edges or awkward voicing, but through the slightly boxy feel from the pedals which probably need to shake the room’s floorboards a little loose before they can properly make their full impact, but its endearing sense of intimacy is immediately established with the rather delicately-played opening chorale of BWV770. Registration details are fully mapped out in the booklet, but while Farr does all the tricks of the trade to bring variety – including playing things up or down an octave – there is an inescapable sense that, for all its generous registration, this is an organ in which variety of timbre is subtle rather than obvious, and the interest in these performance lies more with Farr’s approach to articulation, pacing and silences than in the sound of the organ itself.
This is not an instrument to which hordes of organ buffs will beat a path, but it serves its purpose well and suits Farr’s distinctively introverted approach well.