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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Clavier bung Part III [114:34]
Andreas Fischer (organ)
rec. 2018, Flentrop Organ, St. Katharinen, Hamburg
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
MDG 906 2120-6 SACD [53:12 + 60:22]

Johann Sebastian Bach’s reputation as an organist is explored in Peter Wollny’s booklet notes for this release, putting the Clavier bung or ‘Keyboard Exercises Part III into context, “presenting as representative a cross-section as possible of the different types of chorale arrangements, thus presenting it as an art form in the entire breadth of its variety of forms and expressive possibilities, recapturing the consciousness of Bach’s contemporaries for a genre that at this time had already passed its zenith and was threatening to slip away into utilitarian liturgical music.”

The Great Organ of St. Katherinen in Hamburg is of interest in its own right. It had to be reconstructed after extensive damage caused in 1943, but the baroque organ escaped the later adaptations or replacement of many instruments by Arp Schnitger (1648-1719), who built new organs in all of the other main churches in Hamburg. It was admired by Bach himself who gave a legendary concert on the instrument in 1720, and the restoration has kept its character through reference to documents preserved before 1943 and the use of historic pipes.

This is certainly a fine sounding recording, with spacious SACD representation of the acoustic in St. Katharinen, which is suitably resonant but by no means overly swampy. I would have preferred more clarity in the opening Praeludium BWV552/1, which is strikingly grand but makes you strain a little to follow some of the inner voices. There is a neat spreadsheet on the last pages of the booklet which show the registrations for each BWV number, and there is a nice feel of contrast between the BWV numbers throughout this performance.

There is plenty of competition in this field, and my main reference for Bach’s organ works has for some time been that with Kevin Bowyer on the Nimbus label (review). I have the MP3 edition, but the Clavier bung Part III can be found separately as volume 9 of his complete edition, NI5561-62. This recording is both richly textured, deeply expressive and atmospheric, as well as having the clarity needed to reveal Bach’s wonderful counterpoint.

This is very subjective, but my one big problem with this MDG recording is that I didn’t find it particularly uplifting. I would hate to throw in the phrase ‘lacking in spirituality’ but this is an aspect of Bach’s organ music that demands to shine through. Comparing Bowyer’s Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 687 with Fischer’s, and I miss the urbane conversational quality in the former, which becomes something rather dour and puritan in the present recording. Fischer has a lighter touch in the following Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 688, but Bowyer tops this again with a brisker tempo, showing us the jaw-dropping effect this kind of sparkling brilliance would have had on listeners in Bach’s day. The Fuga super Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 689 is an important point of arrival in this cycle, with Bowyer’s clarity of line taking us through Bach’s labyrinthine musical journey with a palpable sense of discovery. Fischer reduces the tempo to a meditative 5:19 against Bowyer’s 3:49. This is of course a valid approach, aided by the gentle sonorities of the flute stops, but it also drains the piece of much of its inspirational power.

With many impressive qualities and a fine recording, this is not a Clavier bung Part III to be ignored, but if you want to seek beyond impeccable technique and gain a sense of Bach’s symbolism in this music then it might repay you to shop around.

Dominy Clements

CD 1
Praeludium pro organo pleno in Es (BWV 552,1) [10:01]
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, Canto fermo in Soprano, 2 Clav. et Ped. (BWV 669) [3:44]
Christe, aller Welt Trost, Canto fermo in Tenore, 2 Clav. et Ped. (BWV 670) [4:59]
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist 5, Canto fermo in Basso, Cum organo pleno (BWV 671) [6:55]
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 672) [1:50]
Christe, aller Welt Trost (BWV 673) [1:47]
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist (BWV 674) [2:02]
Allein Gott in der Hh sei Ehr, 3, Canto fermo in Alto (BWV 675) [3:27]
Allein Gott in der Hh sei Ehr, 2 Clav. et Pedal (BWV 676) [5:10]
Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Hh sei Ehr, manualiter (BWV 677) [1:22]
Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot, 2 Clav. et Pedale, Canto fermo in Canone (BWV 678) [6:32]
Dies sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot (BWV 679) [1:54]
Wir gluben all an einen Gott (BWV 680) [3:21]

CD 2
Wir gluben all an einen Gott (BWV 681) [1:31]
Vater unser im Himmelreich, 2 Clav. et Pedal e Canto fermo in Canone (BWV 682) [7:14]
Vater unser im Himmelreich, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 683) [1:55]
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, 2 Clav. e Canto fermo in Pedale (BWV 684) [4:28]
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 685) [1:52]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, 6, in Organo pleno con Pedale doppio (BWV 686) [7:36]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir, 4, alio modo, manualiter (BWV 687) [5:03]
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, 2 Clav. e Canto fermo in Pedale (BWV 688) [4:11]
Fuga super Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, 4, manualiter (BWV 689) [5:19]
Duetto I (BWV 802) [2:33]
Duetto II (BWV 803) [3:49]
Duetto III (BWV 804) [3:12]
Duetto IV (BWV 805) [3:30]
Fuga 5 con Pedale pro Organo pleno (BWV 552,2) [7:59]

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