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BACH Family: "Organ Music"

Sergio Militello, organ

rec: August 10 - 11, 2012, Stift Melk (A)
Brilliant Classics - 94483 (© 2013) (47'04")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Rondo in G (Wq 57,3 / H 271); Heinrich BACH (1615-1692): Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott; Johann Bernhard BACH (1676-1749): Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ, chorale partita (exc); Johann Christian BACH (1743-1814): Fugue on B.A.C.H.; Johann Christoph BACH (1642-1703): Prelude and fugue in E flat; Johann Christoph Friedrich BACH (1732-1795): Prelude in e minor; Johann Ernst BACH (1722-1777): Fantasia and fugue in F; Johann Lorenz BACH (1695-1773): Fugue in D; Johann Michael BACH (1648-1694): Wenn mein Stündlein vorhanden ist; Wilhelm Friedemann BACH (1710-1784): Fugue in c minor (F deest / BR WFB deest); Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst BACH (1759-1845): Toccata in C

The Bach family is unparallelled in its contribution to music history. The "Bach" article in New Grove lists no fewer than around 75 members of this family from the 16th to the early 19th century who were in some way or another involved in music. How many of them also have been active as composers is impossible to say. Without doubt large amounts of music have been lost, and as many of the Bachs seem to have been active as organists it is quite possible that they never wrote anything down. After all, organists were supposed to improvise, and if they wrote anything down it was mainly for educational purposes. Even so, there is enough keyboard music by members of the Bach family - apart from Johann Sebastian - to fill a number of discs. The Italian organist Sergio Militello has made a rather modest choice: the short playing time is not exactly a recommendation.

The actual choice of pieces and the way the programme is structured is not entirely convincing. In his liner-notes Militello writes that he "sought out scores of proven authorship". In that case he should have explained why he thinks that the Prelude and fugue in E flat by Johann Christoph Bach is authentic, as it is marked as "doubtful" in New Grove. The fact that the Fugue in c minor by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach has no number in both the old and the new catalogue of his works suggests that this piece is considered of doubtful authenticity as well. From the partita Du Friedefürst, Herr Jesu Christ by Johann Bernhard Bach we hear only two of the variations. Militello begins with a chorale setting and then plays the two selected variations, each followed by another chorale setting. According to Militello this was "typical of the sung liturgy". It seems not entirely clear that partitas with several variations were used this way. Moreover, if he wanted to show how music took its place in the liturgy, this is not the way to do that.

The track-list omits any indication as to the identity of the pieces. In the case of the Rondo in G by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach I have added the catalogue number. The choice of this piece is rather unlucky: its many twists and turns don't come off convincingly at the organ. This is a typical clavichord or fortepiano piece. I could not establish the identity of the Prelude in e minor by Johann Christoph Friedrich Bach. It doesn't appear in the work-list in New Grove, but it could be one of the "70 pieces" which are mentioned under the catalogue number BR A 51 - 120. The name of Johann Christian Bach could cause some confusion, and one may think that the dates of birth and death in the track-list are wrong. However, this is not the "London Bach", the youngest son of Sebastian, but rather a descendant of a different branch of the Bach family. He was from Halle, and a son of Georg Michael; for some time he was a pupil of Wilhelm Friedemann. Another rather distant relative of Sebastian is Johann Lorenz, son of his second cousin Johann Valentin.

Militello plays an organ which was built in 1986 in the Summer Sacristy of the Convent of Melk in Austria by the Dutch firm Reil. This firm was one of the first which built organs as copies of baroque instruments. Whether this organ is a copy of a historical instrument is not mentioned. It is built in baroque style, though, and therefore is well suited to the largest part of the repertoire. The latest pieces require a more classical or early romantic organ, especially the Toccata in C by Wilhelm Friedrich Ernst Bach. The tuning of this organ (Werckmeister I) seems also less appropriate for a work like this. On the other hand, the earliest pieces could probably come off better in a meantone temperament.

I am not that happy with most of Militello's performances. His articulation is rather inconsistent, sometimes too much legato (Johann Christoph Bach, Fugue) and often staccato in places where that sounds rather illogical and was probably not indicated by the composer. His biography says that his performances are "warmly received for their artistic quality, repertory, registrations and improvisational skill (...)". I haven't noticed much of the latter here, though, as I find his playing mostly rather rigid and stiff. There are also strange changes in registration.

Militello has done everything by himself, including the recording, mixing and mastering. That was not such a good idea. The fugues by Johann Lorenz and by Wilhelm Friedemann are marred by ugly cuts. The pauses between sections of one work are too long, such as in Johann Christoph's Prelude and fugue in E flat and Johann Ernst's Fantasia and fugue in F.

This is definitely an interesting disc as far as the programme is concerned. However, the considerable shortcomings in regard to performance and recording and the short playing time result in this being one of the less brilliant products of Brilliant Classics in recent times.

Johan van Veen (© 2013)

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Sergio Militello

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