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Johann PACHELBEL (1653–1706)
Organ Works - Volume 1
Matthew Owens (The 1965 Frobenius Organ of The Queen’s College, Oxford)
Organ specification included.
rec. Chapel of The Queen’s College, Oxford, 17–18 July 2014.
RESONUS RES10285 [71:01]

As if to trying to prove that Pachelbel really is a one work composer, there’s a CD entitled ‘Pachelbel’s Greatest Hit’, containing several different versions of his Canon and Gigue and replete with a cover shot of a cannon of the military variety. You won’t find that (in)famous piece here which, in any case, is not usually heard as it left the composer’s hands, but you will find the first volume of what is planned as a series of recordings of his organ compositions: no canons or gigues are included in the programme, but there is plenty of very fine music, very well performed and recorded.

This recording is most welcome, if for no other reason than the comparative lack of other recordings of Pachelbel by comparison with Buxtehude and other composers of the period. It’s hard to compare the contents with the CPO ‘Complete organ works’. Considerable though that is, in three multi-CD sets, it was never quite completed (Recording of the Month – review review – Recommended review). The new Resonus uses P catalogue numbers, established by Perrault in 2001, the CPO employs the different POP system, established in 1998 for the organ works only. There’s even a third system; we need an authoritative system or a comparative table.

There is such a lot of Pachelbel’s organ music that the Resonus series, if it is intended to be complete, will need even more volumes than the CPO. Three CDs are enough to accommodate the complete extant organ music of Pachelbel’s older contemporary Matthias Weckmann (Brilliant Classics 95229 – review) and his whole output is complete on five (RIC369: Recording of the Month – review Summer 2020), but more Pachelbel is extant, and more of his music is being discovered all the time.

If you want to short-circuit the process, you could go for that near-complete CPO series; not only does it come on SACD, it’s good value with a target price of £26.31 for the 5¾-hour Volume 1, or around £28 for a lossless download if you shop around, though the download comes without a booklet. The SACD insert, which is all that you get, doesn’t itemise the individual works; your chosen player should do so but the lack of a booklet is inexcusable.

For the impecunious, there’s a 13-CD Brilliant Classics set of Simone Stella in the ‘complete keyboard music’, guide price £25.59 (95623, or partial download in three separate volumes for around £6.50 each in lossless sound). I’ve listened to some of that set, which also includes music for the harpsichord, and it seems a pretty fair bargain. The downloads even come with a comprehensive booklet, including the specification of the organ, but even together they contain not much more than half of the 13-CD set, with the organ appearing in the 4-hour third volume.

The other advantage of the CPO recordings comes from the use of five historic organs, all dating from the early eighteenth century, but the Frobenius organ at Queen’s College, Oxford, is more than capable of performing this music in style. Those of us who had already gone down when it was installed are now feeling decidedly superannuated, but the organ is still going strong at 55+, and it’s well suited to this kind of repertoire. I’m pleased to see that Resonus have included the organ specification in the booklet.

Those prepared to play the waiting game to see how many volumes the Resonus series runs to will not be at all disappointed by the first volume. My previous encounters with recordings by Matthew Owens have been with him directing choral music; this organ recording is no less desirable. Right from the opening d minor Prelude it’s clear that this is going to be a very fine album. Since both the Resonus and Brilliant Classics recordings use the P catalogue numbers, it’s possible to compare Owens and Stella in this work. They adopt much the same overall tempo, and Stella gives a very decent performance, but lacks the last degree of uplift that Owens imparts to the work until the work comes to life in the closing bars, and then there’s very little to choose between them at that stage.

I’m on record as having written that Pachelbel’s organ music is not quite the equal of that of Buxtehude, but Owens makes me wonder if that’s the case. In any event, rating composers and works against each other is not a game that we should be playing; let’s leave that to ClassicFM and their Hall of Fame, with The Lark Ascending perpetually at or near the top. It’s a fine piece, but why not Vaughan Williams’ Tallis Fantasia? Perhaps it takes too much concentration to see how skilfully and how entrancingly he weaves Tallis’s very simple tune into the work.

So, let’s have Buxtehude by all means – perhaps one of the complete organ recordings that were released to commemorate the tercentenary of his death, from Ton Koopman (Challenge Classics), Bine Bryndorf (DaCapo) or Wolfgang Rübsam and the other organists who collaborated in the Naxos series – but there’s plenty of room for Pachelbel too in my book.

The variety of the Resonus recording offers further indication that Pachelbel was not a composer with just one tool. The Toccata in F (track 3) is as much an uplifting piece as Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, BWV565. (If, indeed, that piece is by Bach, as modern scholarship is disinclined to believe.) Both take the listener with them – at least, that’s the case here in Owen’s performance – without too much need for intellectual involvement.

On the other hand, he achieves just the right thoughtful mood for the Chorale Partita on the penitential Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen? (tracks 4-10). Although the organ specification is listed in the booklet, it would have been very interesting to have been given the chosen registrations to see just how the different moods are achieved with such a comparatively small number of stops and just two manuals.

The short Magnificat fugues which follow (tracks 11-22) are well varied, and all are little gems as performed here. If Bach’s music often makes you want to dance, the tenth Fugue from this series (track 20) should have the same effect. The brief individual components of the Chorale Partita Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan are also attractive and varied. (Tracks 26-35. But a mark off for the proof-reader who missed the mis-spelling of wohlgetan, well done, as wholgetan; the track information when the CD is played repeats the typo. Not very wohlgetan!)

This is another work contained on Stella’s Brilliant Classics recording. Here, as in P407, he turns in an attractive and varied performance, and his three-manual organ (San Giorgio, Ferrara) is a little more versatile but once again it’s possible to prefer Owens by a margin.

If you had a problem recognising the underlying themes in the two works with named texts, you should have less of a problem with the closing Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott: the Luther chorale tune on which it’s based is stated at the outset, followed by an attractive set of variations in which it remains (just) apparent. It marks a very satisfying and rousing end to a very enjoyable programme. Why have we had to wait seven years for it to be released?

If you wish to study Pachelbel further, CPO can oblige with a very fine recording of four of his Magnificat settings, a ‘short’ Mass ( Kyrie-Gloria-Credo), and other works – review – and another of Easter cantatas. Kevin Sutton was disappointed with the latter – review – so you may prefer the Ricercar recording which I made my discovery of the month in December 2008 (RIC255 or 7-CD set RIC344). Having reviewed that originally perforce in low-bit mp3, I renewed my acquaintance with it in lossless sound via my B2B press access; it now sounds even better but, sadly, like the regular download, it comes without a booklet.

But then, recalling the adage about there being no accounting for taste (de gustibus non est disputandum), and noticing that the CPO Easter recording (999916-2) had been a Gramophone Editor’s Choice and had been well regarded elsewhere, I had to check who was right about it, so back to the Naxos B2B to download it. Both that and the commercial download come without a booklet, but Naxos Music Library can provide the necessary.

Admittedly, the extended opening Deus in adjutorium meum sounds a trifle lacking in flamboyance until you turn up the volume a notch or two, but it’s the three longer tracks that really matter: the psalms Lobet Gott in seinen Reichtum and Jauchzet dem Herrn alle Welt and the Magnificat. Here, and in the Easter hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden, I cannot believe that KS was reviewing the same recording; I think it much better than he did. Next Easter, if you want Pachelbel – and why not? – there’s a clear choice between two fine recordings, on CPO and Ricercar, while the CPO Magnificat recording is good for all seasons.

My press access to the CPO recordings is in 16-bit lossless only, the best available as downloads, with no 24-bit on offer, but there are no complaints about it – or, indeed, the new Resonus, which I also heard in 16-bit CD quality; it can also be obtained in 24-bit format and comes with the pdf booklet, whichever version is chosen.

It’s a compliment to all concerned, not least Owens and the organ at Queen’s, that the new Resonus recording has taken me on something of a Pachelbel trip, proving that fine music can be as addictive as other substances. Though such a trip is less harmful than other addictions, my only regret is that the excursion has served to delay writing some other important reviews, including a Brilliant Classics CD intriguingly entitled ‘The Monteverdi Organ’. Watch this space.

Brian Wilson

Prelude in d minor, P407 [5:58]
Fugue in d minor, P154 [2:48]
Toccata in F, P463 [2:52]
Chorale Partita ‘Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen’, P7a [6:38]
Magnificat Fugues Quinti Toni, P314-325:
Fugue I, P314 [2:02]
Fugue II, P315 [1:40]
Fugue III, P316 [1:19]
Fugue IV, P317 [1:44]
Fugue V, P318 [1:44]
Fugue VI, P319 [1:49]
Fugue VII, P320 [1:08]
Fugue VIII, P321 [1:48]
Fugue IX, P322 [1:27]
Fugue X, P323 [1:19]
Fugue XI, P324 [1:00]
Fugue XII, P325 [2:26]
Ciacona in f minor, P43 [10:56]
Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, P483 [2:31]
Warum betrübst du dich, mein Herz, P484 [4:08]
Chorale Partita ‘Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan’, P379:
Chorale [0:55]
Partita I [0:57]
Partita II [0:59]
Partita III [1:01]
Partita IV [1:06]
Partita V [1:01]
Partita VI [0:55]
Partita VII [1:04]
Partita VIII [0:43]
Partita IX [0:55]
Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott, P106 [5:00]

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