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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Frühe Orgel Werke" (Early Organ Works)

Harald Vogel, organ

rec: Oct 24 - 26, 2012, Cappel, St. Peter und Paul
MDG - 914 1743-6 (© 2012) (74'00")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH: Ach Herr mich armen Sünder (BWV 742); Fantasia in c minor (BWV 1121); Fantasia duobus subjectis in g minor (BWV 917); Fugue in b minor (after Corelli); Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 709); Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (BWV 726); Herzlich lieb hab ich dich, o Herr (BWV 1115); Herzlich tut mich verlangen (BWV 727); Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein (BWV 734); Partite diverse sopra il Corale Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen (BWV 770); Prelude in g minor (BWV 535a); Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 531); Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535); Toccata in d minor (BWV 565); Wie nach einer Wasserquelle (BWV 1119); Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BWV 739); Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713): Sonata in b minor, op. 3,4 (transcription for organ, London 1785)

Musicologists always try to date compositions. That is not just a matter of curiosity: it allows us an insight into the development of a composer and the various influences in his oeuvre. That is certainly the case with Johann Sebastian Bach. Over the years various recordings have been devoted to his early compositions, written during his formative years. At the time he was a pupil of his elder brother Johann Christoph and then the organist Georg Böhm. Through them he became acquainted with the various styles in Europe.

The present disc includes organ works which were written between 1702 and 1708. In 1700 Bach went to Lüneburg where he got to know Georg Böhm. According to his son Carl Philipp Emanuel, his father studied Böhm's music, and there is reason to believe that he was even his pupil. There can be little doubt about Böhm's influence on Bach, for instance in his chorale partitas. One example is included in the programme, the Partite diverse sopra il Corale Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen (BWV 770) which dates from around 1704. In this piece we also find influences of Johann Pachelbel, one of Germany's most prominent organists around 1700. He was the teacher of Bach's brother Johann Christoph.

During his time in Lüneburg Bach paid several visits to Hamburg, the centre of the North German organ school. He was mainly attracted by Johann Adam Reinken, another composer who greatly influenced him. It is not documented that the two met personally at the time, but Bach used every opportunity to hear him play. He was also deeply impressed by the organs he heard whose possibilities were fully explored by Reinken. Bach left Lüneburg in 1702 and after a short service in Weimar he became organist in Arnstadt. In this period he made a voyage to Lübeck to hear Dieterich Buxtehude, another composer who had a major influence on his development as a performer and composer.

In the pieces recorded here by Harald Vogel the influences of the North German organ school are most pronounced. The programme opens with the Prelude and fugue in C (BWV 531); the prelude begins with a brilliant solo in the bass, played at the pedal, with the repeats performed here at the Hauptwerk. The fugue shows strong similarity to the harpsichord pieces which Bach composed at the same time. At the end of the programme Vogel plays another piece in the North German style, the famous Toccata in d minor (BWV 565). Its authenticity is often disputed, and some believe that it was originally conceived as a piece for violin solo. Vogel doesn't show any doubt about Bach's authorship, nor does he think that there is any evidence that it was written for violin. "In this work the young Bach experimented with a profusion of virtuosic forms and stylistic elements. He left the old models far behind him, establishing whilst still in Arnstadt (1703-1706) his lifelong reputation as an outstanding organ virtuoso." Especially interesting is the Prelude and fugue in g minor (BWV 535a & 535). The two versions of the prelude show the change in style: the first begins with a solo episode for the manual which has the description passaggio, a term which refers to the early baroque period and indicates that it should be played in a rhythmically free style. The second version requires a more 'disciplined' performance; in its centre is again a solo for the manual. The various pieces based on chorales also display Bach's development as a composer. They also bear witness to the different forms in which a chorale melody could be treated. Wie nach einer Wasserquelle (BWV 1121), Herzlich lieb hab ich dich (BWV 1115) and Ach Herr mich armen Sünder (BWV 742) are all from the so-called Neumeister-Sammlung. This collection dates from 1702 and the melodies are arranged in various ways. The first shows the influence of Pachelbel, especially in the anticipatory imitation of the cantus firmus. The second bears the traces of a North-German chorale fantasia. The lower parts are relatively straightforward, whereas in later chorale arrangements these parts are much more elaborated. That is the case, for instance, in Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein (BWV 734) which is a trio with an obbligato pedal part.

During his career Bach often used material by other composers for his own works. Sometimes he arranged a complete piece for harpsichord (a sonata for strings by Reinken) or organ (concertos by Vivaldi). In other cases he took a theme as the subject of a fugue. Among the composers who inspired him were Albinoni and Corelli. The Fugue in b minor (BWV 579) is based on the subject of the second movement from Corelli's Sonata in b minor, op. 3,4. Bach adds a fourth part to the original three-part texture, adapts the harmony and adds interludes.

Bach's organ works are fairly well-known. However, the compositions from his early years are not that often performed and recorded. That makes this disc an interesting addition to the Bach discography. It is particularly interesting to hear them in their historical context, showing how Bach developed his compositional style in the various genres. Harald Vogel's liner-notes are informative and help to understand the character of the pieces he has selected. The organ is a beautiful instrument by the Hamburg organ builder Arp Schnitger. It was originally built in 1680 for the St. Johannis-Klosterkirche in Hamburg. In 1816 it was moved to the St. Peter und Paul in Cappel. It is a little unfortunate that the tuning is close to equal temperament. It seems likely that meantone temperament was still quite common at the time Bach wrote these pieces. The acoustic is a bit on the dry side; more reverberation would have been preferable. However, one has to accept the acoustical circumstances in a church as a given; I am certainly not in favour of any technical manipulation of the acoustic.

Harald Vogel is an expert in German organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries, and has made many recordings. I have to say that I am not that impressed by his Bach interpretation. His playing is too straightforward, his articulation could have been sharper, and there should have been a greater differentation between good and bad notes. Here most notes are accorded their full length. There are generally too few breathing spaces, and as a result these performances tend to be a bit massive. That is certainly the case with the Toccata in d minor which is too heavy-handed and should be played in a freer style, probably also with a somewhat more modest registration. Lastly, interpreters have different opinions about the change of registration during play. The late Ewald Kooiman believed that organists only changed the registration when they could do it themselves, in short pauses between sections. Vogel has different opinions in this matter, and that explains the many changes of registration within single pieces. I can't say with any security who is right, but I tend to think that Kooiman was probably closer to the truth than Vogel. Musically speaking I find a single registration for a piece or a particular section more satisfying than the variety in registration which is the norm here.

All in all, a most interesting disc which lovers of Bach's organ music should not miss, but not entirely satisfying as the interpretation is concerned.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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