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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Organ Works"

Hubert Meister, organ

rec: 1981, Eichstatt (D), Schutzengelkirchea; 1983, Näfels (CH), Pfarrkirche St Hilariusb; 1985, Ried im Innkreis (AT), Stadtpfarrkirche St Peter und Paulc
MDG - 606 1708-2 (R) (© 1983-85) (2.17'20")
Liner-notes: D
Cover & track-list

Fantasia and fugue in g minor (BWV 542)c; O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622)c [1]; Passacaglia in c minor (BWV 582)a; Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 547)b; Prelude and fugue in c minor (BWV 546)b; Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548)b; Prelude and fugue in E flat (BWV 552)a; Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541)c; Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 543)b; Prelude and fugue in b minor (BWV 544)a; Toccata, adagio and fugue in C (BWV 564)c; Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit (BWV 668/668a)c [2]

Sources: [1] Orgel-Büchlein, 1713-15; [2] 18 Choräle von verschiedener Art, c1735-45

Hubert Meister was a German organist who was born in 1938 and died in 2010. He studied theology, philosophy and music, worked as a musicologist for the G. Henle-Verlag, was professor for musicology and music theory and was also active as a performer. On the occasion of his death three recordings, originally released on vinyl, were reissued on CD. One of his main interests was the role of rhetoric in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. "As Hubert Meister acknowledged in one of his articles on musical rhetoric, it was very important for him 'to loosen the tongue' of Bach's music and 'to make it speak'. He received profound training as a theologian and musicologist and much preferred to have Bach's rhetoric make its impact from the organ than in theoretical writings", according to Alfred Solder in a programme booklet of the Austrian channel ORF in 1996.

Considering Meister's concern about the true character of Bach's organ works it is surprising that he made these three recordings on new instruments, which were built by the Swiss manufacturer Mathis Orgelbau. These are 'classical' instruments, though, and two of them are in unequal temperament which - as Meister underlines in his liner-notes - is essential in bringing out the different characteristics of the various keys which in Bach's time were closely connected to a specific Affekt.

The earliest recordings, from 1980, are the least convincing. They are also recorded on an instrument of which the temperament is not mentioned, and is probably in equal temperament. In these works the articulation is mostly not clear enough, and there are too many passages which are played legato. Meister sees the Prelude in E flat (BWV 552) as written in the style of the French overture, and that is reflected by his registration. Notable is the difference in pace between the three sections of the fugue which follows it: the first is in an average tempo, the second slow and the third very fast. The playing of the third fugue's subject is a bit awkward.

In his liner-notes one recognizes his theological schooling as he pays much attention to the fact that many free organ works are connected to aspects of Christian - and in particular Lutheran - doctrine. That is, for instance, the case with the Passacaglia in c minor (BWV 582). The subject of the fugue is based on the 'Christe eleison' from the Messe du 12e ton by the French composer André Raison. This is the basis of Meister's explanation of the various rhetorical figures which Bach makes use of. I'm not really impressed with the performance. The tempo is rather slow, and because of the frequent changes in registration it doesn't come off as a unity.

The recordings from 1983 show that Meister had developed his interpretation. The articulation is better and the performances are more speechlike. I have no doubt that part of the greater impact of the pieces played at the organ in Näfels has to do with the unequal temperament and also the 'natural' wind-raising, meaning: by manpower. Meister plays Prelude and fugue in c minor (BWV 546); he sees a similarity between the prelude and the opening chorus of the cantata Wer sich selbst erhöhet, der soll erniedriget werden (BWV 47). In the figures in the prelude he recognizes a depicting of the haughtiness which the cantata refers to. It is one of Bach's most dramatic organ works, and that is well exposed in Meister's performance. Even more dramatic is the Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548) which Meister interprets as a musical expression of God descending to a world which is in distress and needs redemption. The performance is one of the best in this set.

One of Bach's most famous organ works is the Toccata, adagio and fugue in C (BWV 564). The toccata includes a long passage for pedal solo which unfortunately is seriously underexposed, probably largely due to the recording. The adagio is very well played, but the fugue is too slow and the theme is again a bit awkward. The Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 547) can, according to Meister, be connected to Sunday Epiphany, also because of the similarity with the opening chorus of Bach's cantata for this Sunday, Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen (BWV 65). It is played well, but the opening of the prelude would have been more speechlike if there had been more differentiation between the notes of every triplet. It may surprise that Meister plays only two pieces based on a chorale. But as I indicated above, he sees a theological meaning in most of the 'free' organ works, so this means that basically there is no fundamental difference between the two categories. O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622) is from the Orgel-Büchlein and one of Bach's most expressive chorale arrangements. Meister takes a quiet tempo, and the last bars he plays very slowly, illustrating the closing line of the text: "long on the cross". In the case of Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit (BWV 668/668a) he warns against any sentimentality and subjectivity in the interpretation. He plays it in a pretty straightforward way, in a moderate but certainly not slow tempo.

I can't tell what kind of impact these recordings had in Germany when they were first released. At that time the organ world was still pretty conservative, at least in Germany. In the Netherlands, where I live, the principles of historical performance practice were much more rapidly embraced, also by organists. In the 1980s some Dutch organists delivered better performances - from a historical perspective - of Bach's organ music than Hubert Meister. That was partly due to the strong influence of Gustav Leonhardt. But in Germany many organists were still playing Bach in the style of Helmut Walcha. Hubert Meister's performances are quite different and are therefore interesting from the angle of the developments in performance practice. Therefore it would not be fair to compare these performances with the most recent as they are available on disc right now.

Even so, these discs are more than just a documentation of a stage in the history of Bach interpretation. As I indicated I have problems with some aspects of Meister's interpretations. The tempi are sometimes slowish, the articulation isn't always as clear as one would wish and there is a lack of differentation between notes. Listening to this set I have gained great respect for Hubert Meister's performances, though, and often I found them quite captivating. His own liner-notes are very helpful to the understanding of the character of these pieces. It is a great shame that they are only printed in German and have not been translated into English. I need to add that Meister's analyses are not shared by everyone; elsewhere one can find other analyses. Nevertheless, his liner-notes are interesting and challenging and should be taken very seriously.

Every lover of Bach's organ music should consider purchasing this set which is mostly captivating and definitely interesting from the angle of performance practice.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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