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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Organ Works

[I] "Organ Works"
Masaaki Suzuki, organ
rec: July 2014, Groningen, Martinikerk
BIS - 2111 (© 2015) (79'26")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Canonische Veränderungen über Vom Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her' (BWV 769); Pièce d'orgue (Fantasia) in G (BWV 572); Partite diverse sopra O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV 767); Pastorale (Pastorella) in F (BWV 590); Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548); Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535); Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565);

[II] "Organ Masterworks Vol. V"
Kei Koito, organ
rec: Sept 23 - 25, 2014, Erfurt, Cruciskirche
Claves - 50-1503 (© 2015) (70'53")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): In dulci jubilo (BWV 751); Johann Sebastian BACH: Adagio (after BWV 1001,1; arr Kei Koito) and fugue (BWV 539) in d minor; Christe, du Lamm Gottes (BWV 619); Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 614); Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904); Fantasia super Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (BWV 651); Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV Anh 55) (?Johann Tobias KREBS, 1690-1762); Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf (BWV 1092); Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147) (Jesus bleibet meine Freude, arr Kei Koito); Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (BWV 665); Jesus, meine Zuversicht (BWV 728); Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein (BWV 734); O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (BWV 618); Prelude and fughetta in G (BWV 902); Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541); Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (BWV 641); Trio in c minor (after BWV 21,1)


Johann Sebastian Bach takes a central place in the work of Masaaki Suzuki. Since the foundation of his Bach Collegium Japan he has been mainly active in recording Bach's vocal oeuvre. The recordings of his keyboard works have received less attention. So far he has recorded few of Bach's organ works; the main exception is the Clavier-Übung III. The present disc gives no indication that he plans to record Bach's complete organ works.

The programme includes some of Bach's best-known organ pieces. It opens with the Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565), a real 'evergreen' which has been recorded numerous times. I have always find it hard to swallow, especially because the opening is often so heavy and slow. Suzuki's interpretation is not an exception, I'm afraid. Ever since I have heard Gustav Leonhardt's sparkling performance I have been disappointed by most other interpretations. This piece needs a more improvisational approach. Suzuki offers no new perspective here.

That seems a little different in the case of the Partite diverse sopra O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV 767). The liner-notes have been written by the Dutch Bach scholar Albert Clement who has written a book on Bach's chorale partitas. For a long time it has been thought that the partitas II to IX were linked to the stanzas 1 to 8 of this hymn. But Clement points out that in Bach's time this hymn comprised nine stanzas and that each of the nine partitas is linked to a stanza of the chorale. Because of that the partita VI should not be played as fast as often is the case as it is linked to a stanza with a different content (look for a translation of the 6th stanza here). I don't know if Suzuki follows his suggestion; liner-notes not always reflect the performance. The partita VI is not played really fast but Leonhardt's tempo here is slower.

The tempo of the Pièce d'orgue in G (BWV 572) seems really different. Clement mentions that in a copy by Johann Gottfried Walther the tempo indication of the middle section is gayement rather than gravement; other copies have here allegro. Again I don't know whether this has been the version Suzuki has used. Siegbert Rampe is one who used it and his tempo is very fast. Suzuki's performance is also on the fast side but Ewald Kooiman (Coronata, 1991) and Harald Vogel (deutsche harmonia mundi, 1992) are even faster. However, that could also be the result of a faster tempo in the opening section where Suzuki takes a more moderate tempo. In the closing section the descending motif is hardly audible which is mainly due to the registration but probably also the acoustic. The reverberation is not that large but still I often find that in the fast sections here and in other works some details are lost and the articulation is not clear enough. In the opening of the Prelude in g minor (BWV 535) the pedal is also hardly audible.

Things are much better in the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her (BWV 769) where the registration and articulation allow the listener to follow the various parts. The same goes for the Pastorale in F (BWV 590) which receives a nice intimate performance. With the Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548) this disc comes to an impressive end: it is one of Bach's most beautiful and incisive free organ works, and Suzuki delivers and energetic and rhetorical performance.

The organ in the Martinikerk in Groningen is one of the most important historical instruments of the Netherlands. In 1691 Arp Schnitger extended the existing instrument and further additions took place in 1728-30 by his son Franz Caspar and the latter's foreman Albertus Anthoni Hinsz. Its pitch is a=465 Hz; the temperament after Hinsz, a variant of Neidhart (more about the organ here).

The second disc is the fifth volume in a remarkable series devoted to 'Organ Masterworks' by Bach, played by the Japanese-born organist Kei Koito on various historical instruments. I don't know whether she plans a 'complete recording' but if that is the case it will be different from the 'conventional' complete recordings. In this and previous volumes she always includes arrangements of instrumental or vocal works and pieces which are usually played on the harpsichord. Some of the arrangements are from Bach's own pen, some she has created herself. This volume includes specimens of all those categories.

One of the most interesting items is the Trio in c minor, a transcription of the sinfonia which opens the cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis (BWV 21). It has been known since long and was thought to be the work of one of Bach's pupils or colleagues but the recent discovery of an early manuscript of this piece confirms that it is from Bach's own pen. One of Bach's best-known cantatas is Herz und Mund und Tat und Leben (BWV 147), especially because of the chorale Jesus bleibet meine Freude which was arranged for piano by Myra Hess (Jesu, joy of man's desiring). Kei Koito has made her own arrangement which is closer to the original and the style of Bach's time. There is no objection against such arrangements: Bach's own Schübler Choräle are transcriptions of movements from his cantatas.

Bach himself transcribed the second movement from his Sonata in g minor (BWV 1001) for violin solo. This Fugue in d minor (BWV 539,2) has come down to us with an original prelude. But it is doubtful whether these two pieces were meant as a unity, especially as the prelude omits a pedal part, unlike the fugue. In Kei Koito's performance the fugue is preceded by the first movement from the violin sonata which restores the original order. It is a very interesting option and Koito's transcription is of excellent quality; it should be published and used as an alternative to the prelude which is usually played.

The Prelude and fughetta in G (BWV 902) and the Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904) are examples of pieces meant for a stringed keyboard instrument. The former pair was later reworked and included in the second part of the Wohltemperirte Clavier. They work well on the organ, especially BWV 902. In BWV 904 Ms Koito took the freedom to occasionally insert a bass part on the pedalboard.

The chorales are from different collections. Herr Gott, nun schleuß den Himmel auf is one of the Neumeister Choräle which date from Bach's formative years. The Fantasia super Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott (BWV 651) and Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (BWV 665) are from the 18 Choräle von verschiedener Art and four pieces have been taken from the Orgelbüchlein (BWV 614, 618, 619 and 644).

In dulci jubilo (BWV 751) has been attributed to Bach but was considered of dubious authenticity; it is now thought to be from the pen of Bach's father-in-law Johann Michael Bach. Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV Anh 55) is a trio; it has been preserved as a copy by Bach's pupil Johann Tobias Krebs but it is possible that he is in fact the composer, according to Peter Wollny in his liner-notes. The booklet includes also liner-notes by Gilles Cantagrel (French) and George B. Stauffer (English), and the latter mentions Johann Tobias' son Johann Ludwig - also a Bach pupil - as the possible composer.

Kei Koito plays an organ built by Franciscus Volckland between 1732 and 1737 in the Cruciskirche in Erfurt. "The foundation stops of this organ are rich in colour and character", she writes in the booklet. She is right and it is the first time I have heard it which is rather surprising as its features make it an appropriate instrument for recordings (more about the organ here; only in German, with a pdf including the disposition). The acoustic is such that the sound of the organ can flourish without becoming muddy. I generally like Koito's registration although sometimes I would have liked softer sounds. The cantus firmus in Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (BWV 641) is a bit too sharp and I also would prefer some mellower sounds in O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (BWV 618). Koito also too often changes the registration in the free works.

That said, as far as the repertoire is concerned and the organ chosen for this recording this is a very interesting disc. Kei Koito's performances are generally outstanding. Reasons enough to add this disc to your collection.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Kei Koito

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