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Beatles Love Bach
Cristina García Banegas (organ)
rec. 2018, St Barnabas Church, Penny Lane, Mossley Hill, Liverpool, UK

Although Uruguayan organist Cristina García Banegas is by no means the first organist to play Beatles’ hits on the organ, there is still quite a bit of novelty about this release. For a start it is recorded on the 1914 Willis organ of the church in which Paul McCartney sang as a choirboy: and I do not believe that the organ has ever featured on a commercial CD before. Moreover, the church stands on Penny Lane, immortalised in one McCartney’s classic Beatles’ hits. McCartney himself stated that the guitar accompaniment to “Blackbird” was inspired by the Bourrée from Bach’s E minor Lute Suite, and Banegas presents the two side-by-side to emphasise the musical connections. As a final bit of novelty, this is the first time I have encountered any recording from the recently-established DramaMusica label; a UK-based label with strong South American connections which describes its focus as “bringing freshness to the early music repertoire as well as exploring works by women composers” and providing “an international platform for renowned Brazilian artists introducing them to a global audience”.

Banegas is founder and artistic director of the International Organ Festival of Uruguay, Chair of Organ studies at the University School of Music in Uruguay, and has devoted a lot of her performing career to early music, notably as Director of the Ensemble Vocal e Instrumental De Profundis. As a solo organist, she has recorded quite a bit of Bach (including a 2016 recording devoted to Bach’s organ works from the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam) and performed extensively on historic organs. All this might imply that, Beatles’ hits apart, this recording could offer some distinctive, maybe even original, view on the organ music of Bach and reveal hidden glories in a classic Willis church organ.

It does not.

What emerges from this surprisingly meagre CD is somebody getting something out of their system. Banegas gives the game away in the very first sentence of her booklet note; “This CD is a way of saying thank you to those who awakened a parallel path of my academic musical life: Johann Sebastian Bach and The Beatles”. This is an enthusiast having fun, not so much with the music or the instrument, as with the recording location. And if, at around 40 minutes, that fun does not seem to have lasted very long, we can suggest that the organ has not too much to offer, the pieces performed are (with one exception) all well within the usual two-and-a-half minute duration of pre-CD pop tracks, and the arrangements lack imagination. She promises us a further recording from another Liverpool church (St Peter’s, Woolton), but after having heard this one, I won’t be at the front of the queue for any subsequent release.

For the most part Banegas plays arrangements (which may or may not be her own), not just of the Beatles’ songs, but of Bach, and these include a strangely un-idiomatic one of the Prelude from Bach’s first Cello Suite. These arrangements do not develop or explore, merely present the main musical theme and then finish – not always very successfully; as with the uncomfortably abrupt stoppage to a strangely rambling take on “Mother Nature’s Son” and the uneasy collapse of “Penny Lane” (a track which begins with a little bit of birdsong and a bell tolling, as if to inject a bit of unexpected Liverpudlian atmosphere). The arrangement of “If I needed someone” does at times sound a little organistic, although on this instrument it takes on the hefty character of a thumping piston engine gradually running out of steam in the closing bars. Perhaps the most successful is “Good Night”, with the hints of inner detail exuding a whiff of pseudo-polyphony, and the organ tone pleasingly fulsome, although I think we could live without the eerily disembodied voice of Ms Banegas wishing us all a “Good night” at the end of it.

While the transcriptions themselves are rather basic, I do enjoy the great vitality Banegas brings to such numbers as “Lady Madonna” - the organ is positively dancing here. The only track on the CD which goes seriously beyond the two-and-a-half-minute mark is the amalgam of “Air on the G string” and “For no one”. The closely-miked action noise rather disturbs the flow of the Bach (and it’s not just the ubiquitous Air we have here, but a chorale melody to wrap it all up with), and with the superimposition of the McCartney melody, the organ sounds woody and thick, all of which slightly undermines what is, musically at least, a very good idea.

But while, musically, the programme is decidedly uneven, there is some lovely playing here, especially of the “authentic” organ pieces, and Banegas manages to find some sparkling sounds from what seems a somewhat unprepossessing instrument (only very sketchy details of it are included in the booklet). Her registration for the Fugue in C has a delightfully Baroqueish aroma, and she uses four foot stops with great inventiveness to give a lovely nimbleness to Nun freut euch, lieben Christen (erroneously listed in the booklet as Herr Christ, dich zu uns wend). Other chorale preludes, on Wir Christenleut’ and Vom Himmel hoch, stand out with a bright yet imposing authority, and she brings a nice touch of sincerity to a cleanly articulated account of O Herre Gott, dein göttlichs Wort to end the programme.

There are some interesting things here, but with a playing time which is undeniably meagre, an attractive booklet (with caricatures of Bach and McCartney by Jaime Clara) which is carelessly edited and woefully short on information about the music and the organ, and a powerfully immediate recording which feels a little too forward for an instrument of such tonal solidity, this is not a release I could recommend unreservedly even to those who might find Beatles on the organ a novelty.

Marc Rochester

Paul McCartney (b.1942): Penny Lane [2:11]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750):
Prelude from Cello Suite No.1 In G Major, BWV1007 [2:58]
Chorale Prelude Wir Christenleut’ BWV612 [1:26]
Chorale Wir Christenleut’ from Cantata No.40 [0:51]
Fugue in G Minor, BWV131a [2:28]
Paul McCartney: Blackbird [2:00]
J.S. Bach: Bourrée from Lute Suite in E Minor, BWV996 [1:36]
McCartney: Mother Nature's Son [2:49]
J.S.Bach: Fugue in C Major BWVAnh90 [2:34]
McCartney: Eleanor Rigby [2:17]
Lady Madonna [1:56]
J.S.Bach: Chorale Prelude Vom Himmel Hoch, BWV738 [1:22]
J.S.Bach/McCartney: Air On The G String/For No One [6:41]
George Harrison (1943-2001): If I Needed Someone [3:21]
J.S.Bach: Chorale Prelude Nun freut euch, lieben Christen, BWV734 [2:30]
McCartney: Good Night [3:11]
J.S.Bach: Chorale Prelude O Herre Gott, Dein Göttlichs Wort, BWV757 [2:20]

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