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Bach orgelbuchlein LWC1211
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Das Orgelbüchlein, BWV599-644. [80:01]
Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542 [13:21]
Fantasia and Fugue in C minor, BWV537 [9:39]
Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV541 [8:53]
Prelude and Fugue in D minor, BWV539 [8:26]
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582 [14:49]
Käre Nordstoga (organ)
rec. 10-12 September 2019, St Bavo Church, Haarlem, The Netherlands
LAWO LWC1211 [2 CDs: 146:06]

Norwegian organist, Käre Nordstoga, has been working his way through the complete organ works of Bach for the Lawo label using a variety of mostly famous and historic European organs. For this, apparently the sixth double CD set in a projected series of seven releases, he has pulled out a real ace in choice of instrument. The 1738 Christian Müller organ of St Bavo, Haarlem, should need no introduction to anyone even remotely interested in historic organs, which is probably just as well, since, beyond the basic stop list, there is no information at all about it in the accompanying booklet.

It would be fair to say that, thus far, Nordstoga’s Bach cycle has received only muted critical response, and although most of the previous releases in the series which have been reviewed have been praised, a consistent theme running through those reviews is the lack of noteworthy elements in the performances. They are praised for their solidity and dependability, but, reviewing the second volume in the series for this site (review), Dominy Clements rather summed up the general view that “If you seek something sparkling and inspirational then this probably won’t tick all of your boxes”. He is right; but what if you are not seeking anything sparkling or inspirational? What if you are after unpretentious, unfussy, warmly comfortable and, yes, solidly dependable Bach? If that’s the case, then this recording should be right at the top of your list.

Starting with the organ, there is no sense that the absence of information from the booklet is anything more than a reflection on the priories of the recorded performances. Nordstoga is not interested in revealing the manifest glories of this instrument, and with one of the two discs devoted to the 45 bite-seized chorale preludes of the Orgelbüchlein there is every opportunity to root around the organ for unusual and interesting sounds. Instead, while every prelude is graced by a wholly appropriate and often endearing registration (listen to the deliciously delicate solo registration for Liebster Jesu or the charming bell-like registration for In dulci jubilo), there is no sense that these registrations are chosen for any other reason than they are most suited for the individual preludes. With the first disc devoted to larger, non-chorale-based works, again the choice of registrations is varied, but never governed by anything other than choosing what suits the work best. This is, of course, superbly revealed in the Passacaglia, but I am particularly taken by the intimate sound of the D minor where a sombre and quiet Prelude is followed by a lightly registered Fugue. That gloriously sunny G major Prelude and Fugue is delivered with a scintillatingly bright registration which is sufficiently modest never to risk tiring the ears. And by reserving full organ for the truly big moments (as with the G minor Fantasia), the impact is all the more impressive. In terms of recording, the pedal seems to lack focus, but the upper detail is suitably vivid and the overall balance between clarity of sound and acoustic depth is pretty good.

In both big fugal works and tiny chorale-based pieces, Nordstoga’s approach is undemonstrative. He makes it all flow in an easy manner, devoid of fussy articulation, pointed phrasing, dramatic tempi, or elaborate ornamentation. This is homely Bach; unaffected by individual interpretative gestures or revolutionary ideas of scholarship. The BWV541 Prelude enjoys a perky, bright articulation which is neither studiedly detached nor artificially shaped, while the chorale melody of Ich ruf zu dir is an unbroken legato alleviated by a gently prodding pedal touch. In a way, this is like the Bach playing I used to hear in my youth by the local cathedral organist; giving us Bach as it appears on the page in editions without serious editorial intervention, and leaving it to the listener to revel in the sound without concerning too much about what current scholarly thinking would have us decide about what is “right” and what is “wrong”. Nordstoga is the vehicle through which the notes Bach wrote are communicated to us, with minimal third-party intervention. Those after spectacle, interpretative originality, or dazzling displays of organ colour or virtuosity will be disappointed, but for me I can happily live with this style of uncontroversial, conservative Bach playing. It might not be one to show off to friends, but it is one I shall thoroughly enjoy savouring in the privacy of my own listening space.

The only real disappointment is in the packaging. All releases in the series have been visually dull and, in detail, far from flawless. It irks me that tonalities are not indicated (there is no way of telling major or minor from the booklet listings) and while Torkil Baden’s notes are most readable, they are too prone to speculation to be taken at face value. I also find the breaking up of the text on the small pages of the booklet into three columns unnecessarily awkward – it reads rather too much like a newspaper columnist and not enough like an illuminating commentary on some of the greatest works in organ literature.

Marc Rochester

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