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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Organ Works

[I] "Harmonic Seasons"
Manuel Tomadin, organ
rec: Sept 24 - 25, 2018, Goslar, Stiftskirche Grauhof
Brilliant Classics - 95786 (© 2019) (79'47")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet

[in order of appearance] Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541); Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 709); Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 655); Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548); Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682); Jesus Christus unser Heiland (BWV 666); Fantasia in c minor (BWV 1121/Anh 205); Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (BWV 684); Prelude and fugue in c minor (BWV 546); Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth (BWV 591); Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 604); Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 545)

[II] "Back to Bach - Famous Organ Works"
Kei Koito, organ
rec: June 4 - 6, 2018, Groningen (NL), Martinikerk
deutsche harmonia mundi - 19075915582 (© 2019) (70'45")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover, track-list & booklet

An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653); Fantasia super Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott (BWV 720); Fantasia super Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 713a,1 & 713,2); Herzlich tut mich verlangen (BWV 727); Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist (BWV 667); Nun danket alle Gott (BWV 657); O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (BWV 656); Prelude and fugue in D (BWV 532); Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 550); Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535) & Prelude/Passaggio in g minor (BWV 535a,1); Toccata and fugue in d minor ('Dorian') (BWV 538); Trio Ich will an den Himmel denken (BWV 584); Trio Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (BWV deest)


Today Johann Sebastian Bach is considered the greatest composer of the baroque era. That was different in his own time. He was only appointed Thomaskantor, because - according to the Leipzig authorities - the best were not available. However, there was no doubt whatsoever that Bach was the greatest organist of his time. He not only was famous for his virtuosity, but also for his thorough knowledge of the organ. Because of that, he was often asked to inspect a newly built instrument and to inaugurate it. Some of his organ works will undoubtedly have been written for such inaugurations. No other composer has left such a large corpus of organ pieces. No wonder Ton Koopman once said that he would stop playing the organ, if he was not allowed to play Bach.

This also explains why there are so many recordings of his organ works on the market. They have been recorded complete a number of times, sometimes more than once by the same organist, and in addition numerous recordings of selected organ works are available. In this review some recently released discs of this kind are reviewed here.

The Italian organist Manuel Tomadin has recorded several discs with German organ music of the 17th century for Brilliant Classics. He seems to have a special liking for this repertoire, which may be explained by the fact that he is the organist of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Trieste. In this capacity he must be very familiar with the features of organ music from the Lutheran part of Germany. For his latest recording he has turned to Bach. One may wonder what the title of his disc means. In his liner-notes, he explains it thus: "Consisting of 12 compositions, 12 months, 4 seasons, 4 preludes and fugue [sic], each season has three compositions. Starting from the construction of the harmonic series existing in nature, by playing the notes G, E and C together what we obtain is known as the perfect, divine triad; the C major tone contrasts with the C minor tone and only differs from the modal note." The first three pieces are in G major: the Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541) is followed by two arrangements of the chorale Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, among them the trio from the Achtzehn Choräle. Bach's oeuvre includes two further arrangements; a fifth is of doubtful authenticity.

Next are three pieces in E minor: the Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548) is one of Bach's most expressive free organ works, whose prelude opens with a characteristic rising sixth, rhetorically speaking an exclamatio. Vater unser im Himmelreich is part of the Clavier-Übung III; apart from this large-scale trio, this collection also includes an arrangement for manuals only. Jesus Christus unser Heiland is again taken from the Achtzehn Choräle.

The third section opens with a fantasia, which only appears in the Andreas Bach Buch, a collection of pieces from Bach's early years; some are of his own making, others by composers of the time whose oeuvre he apparently studied. The Fantasia in c minor is for manuals only and has been recorded on harpsichord. It has been acknowledged as authentic fairly recently; it is not included in the complete recordings by, for instance, Hans Fagius (BIS/Brilliant Classics) and Bernard Foccroulle (Ricercar). Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam is another piece from the Clavier-Übung III; the hymn is usually connected to the feastday of St John the Baptist (Johannistag, 24 June). "The running, swirling semiquavers are usually interpreted as picturing the flowing Jordan (...)" (Peter Williams). This section closes with the Prelude and fugue in c minor (BWV 546). It is not entirely sure that the prelude and the fugue were conceived as a unity; some assume that the fugue is of an earlier date than the prelude.

The last section begins with one of Bach's most curious works - that is to say, if the Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth is indeed from his pen. It is mostly accepted as an authentic Bach piece, but there are still doubts about his authorship. The only copies date from the late 18th century. It is also not clear whether it was intended as an organ work. Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ, part of the Orgelbüchlein, is an arrangement of a Christmas hymn; the text is Luther's arrangement of a medieval sequence by Notker Balbulus. This section, and the entire disc, ends with the Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 545). This work has been preserved in several versions; the version performed here dates from Bach's Leipzig period, and is a revision of an earlier version written in Weimar.

Tomadin plays the organ built by Christoph Treutmann the Elder in the former Collegiate Church of St George at the Grauhof estate in Goslar. Recently I reviewed another disc of this fine instrument, which is well suited to Bach's oeuvre. It has 42 registers, divided among three manuals and pedal. The pitch is a'=462 Hz (known in Germany as Chorton) and its temperature is unequal according to Bach/Kellner. In previous recordings, Tomadin has proved to be a good interpreter of German organ music, and here he again convinces in his performances of Bach organ works. I like the fact that he does not change the registration within single works, except in the Kleines Harmonisches Labyrinth. In the Prelude and fugue in G, he even plays both in the same registration. In the other prelude and fugue pairings, he makes some changes, but not that many, and as a result they have a strong amount of coherence. The fugue of the latter pairing is quite transparent. However, that is missing in Prelude and fugue in a minor, where I find the registration rather heavy. That is about the only issue here; the pieces based on chorales come off rather well, and I appreciate both the choice of registers and the tempi.

All in all, this disc is a nice addition to any collection of organ works by Bach.

Kei Koito has also made several recordings of German repertoire, including works by Bach. As far as I know, she recorded five discs with his organ works. Apparently she did not intend to make a complete recording. The disc under review here is no compilation of previous recordings, but an entirely new one. I can't see any thread here; the subtitle "Famous Organ Works" suggests that the selection rather reflects a personal choice. However, according to George B. Stauffer, in his liner-notes, the programme represents three different genres in Bach's organ oeuvre: free pieces, chorale settings and transcriptions.

If a programme includes "famous organ works", one may expect pieces that are generally well-known. That certainly goes for the Prelude and fugue in d minor (BWV 538), with the nickname 'Dorian', which opens the programme. It is one of Bach's most frequently performed and recorded organ works. The same can be said of chorale arrangements such as Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, heiliger Geist (BWV 667), An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653) and O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (BWV 656). However, the Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 550) is probably less familiar.

The programme includes some items that are certainly not part of many recordings. The Trio super Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan is one of them. It is not included in the Schmieder catalogue, as it was recognized as an authentic Bach work fairly recently. The tracklist does not say so, but it may well have been included here for the first time. It has been preserved in a manuscript from the early 19th century, where it is the first of five chorale trios and is attributed to Bach. The chorale melody only appears in the pedal at the end of the piece, or, rather, its first two lines. Another lesser-known piece is the Trio in g minor (BWV 584), which is the transcription of the tenor aria 'Ich will an den Himmel denken' from the cantata Wo gehest du hin (BWV 166). In the Schmieder catalogue it is ranked among the organ works, but in the only recording I have it is played at the harpsichord. It is also omitted in some complete organ recordings, such as those by Fagius, Foccroulle and Ewald Kooiman and some of his pupils (Aeolus). Peter Williams (The Organ Music of J.S. Bach) also does not discuss it.

There are some other interesting items here. One is the Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535), which is performed in the common version. However, Koito also included the much shorter first version: 21 bars instead of 43. According to Stauffer, it "is no more than a series of hastily tossed-off improvisatory gestures, including an opening section labeled Passaggio, or passage-work." It is mostly not included in complete recordings. Lastly, Jesu meine Freude (BWV 713), a manualiter chorale arrangement. The interesting thing about this piece is the treatment of the cantus firmus. The first three lines appear at first in three different voices: soprano, alto, bass. If they are repeated, they appear in the order alto, bass, soprano. According to the track-list, the performance involves a version catalogued as BWV 713a, but the liner-notes don't discuss the identity of that version nor does it say how the two are combined. According to Peter Williams it is "obviously an arrangement", which means that it must be of a later rather than an earlier date.

Kei Koito's performances have several features. First, she prefers pretty fast tempi. I can't remember having heard the Dorian fugue in such a speedy tempo. It works rather well, taking away some of the heaviness it can have in slower performances. However, I find her tempi not always convincing. Sometimes I miss breathing spaces, for instance in the Prelude in D (BWV 532). I also would have liked a more relaxed and quiet approach to the chorales An Wasserflüssen Babylon and O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig. I probably should say that I prefer a more 'vocal' way of playing them. Second, Koito tends to change the registration or switch from one manual to the other too often. This results is a lack of coherence (which is one of the strengths of Tomadin's performances). A good example is the Fugue in D (BWV 532). Third, she is not afraid to add ornamentation. In general, I am rather sceptical about this as I am not sure that this is in line with Bach's intentions. Koito sometimes tends to do a little too much. That results in a rather disappointing performance of the Fugue in G (BWV 550). Stauffer refers to the "on-going drive" of the fugue, and exactly that does not entirely come off. Ironically the tempo is here just a little too slow. It is one of my favourite pieces, and here Hans Fagius hits the nail on the head.

All said and done, this is undoubtedly a very interesting and musically often exciting disc. Kei Koito is an excellent performer, and she plays here one of the finest instruments by Arp Schnitger, which is ideally suited to Bach's organ music.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

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