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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): Trio Sonatas (BWV 525 - 530)

[I] "Six Sonatas à 2 Clav: et Pedal"
Ullrich Böhme, organ
rec: August 28, 2013, Naumburg, Stadtkirche St. Wenzelb; Nov 20, 2013, Freiberg, St. Mariend; August 28, 2014f & Feb 25, 2015c, Leipzig, Thomaskirche; Nov 24, 2014, Dresden, Katholische Hofkirchea; June 5, 2015, Ottobeuren, Basilika St. Alexander und St. Theodore
Rondeau - ROP608586 (2 CDs) (© 2016) (1.22'55")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet

[II] "Galantes & Gelehriges" (The Galant & the Learned)
Rainer Goede, organ
rec: May 17 - 19, 2012, Ansbach, Stiftskirche St. Gumbertusg
Querstand - VKJK1426 (2 CDs) (© 2014) (2.05'52")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH: Sonata No. 1 in E flat (BWV 525)ag; Sonata No. 2 in c minor (BWV 526)bg; Sonata No. 3 in d minor (BWV 527)cg; Sonata No. 4 in e minor (BWV 528)dg; Sonata No. 5 in C (BWV 529)eg; Sonata No. 6 in G (BWV 530)fg
Christian Friedrich Gottlieb SCHWENKE (1767-1822)g: Fuga in C; Fuga canonica in contrapunto doppio alla decima e duodecima in B flat; Fuga diatonica in contrapunto doppio per tutti gli gli intervalli in F; Fuga, Andante sostenuto, sempre mezza voce e legato in F; Fughetta in contrapunto doppio alla duodecima in C; Fughetta in G

Source: Christian Friedrich Gottlob Schwenke, VI Fugen für die Orgel zum Studium canonischer Sätze, 1823

Scores JS Bach

Most of Bach's vocal works were never performed outside Leipzig and most of his instrumental compositions were never printed and as a result didn't find a wide dissemination. Because of that Bach's reputation as a composer of vocal and instrumental music was not comparable to that of Georg Philipp Telemann. Among those who did know his compositions some were quite critical. There was one department where Bach's skills were unchallenged: he was universally praised as an organ virtuoso who also had a thorough knowledge of the instrument and its construction. It is no coincidence that most of his pupils were organists and landed in prestigious positions. Johann Ludwig Krebs is one of the best-known examples, alongside Bach's eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann.

By all accounts he was the favourite son of Johann Sebastian who paid much attention to his musical education. Part of that was the playing of keyboard instruments, and especially the organ. Several collections of keyboard works were written with that purpose, such as the Clavierbüchlein and the first part of the Wohltemperirtes Clavier. The six trio sonatas for two manuals and pedal also belong among the material that Bach produced for the education of Friedemann. They were probably compiled in the late 1720s, when the latter had already developed considerable skills in the playing of the keyboard, because these trio sonatas are technically challenging.

In these works Bach translates one of the most popular forms of instrumental music - the trio sonata for two treble instruments and bc - to the organ. However, he did not adhere to the form of the trio sonata which had been established by Arcangelo Corelli: basically four movements in the order slow - fast - slow - fast. He rather adopted the texture of the Italian solo concerto, established by Vivaldi, which Bach had become acquainted with during his time in Weimar. Some movements also adopt the ritornello structure of the Vivaldian concerto.

For the most part the sonatas consist of music written previously for other scorings. The opening movement from the Sonata in e minor, for instance, began life as the sinfonia to the second part of the cantata BWV 76. It is probably only the Sonata in G, the last of the set, which was originally conceived for the organ. They were never printed but found their way to organists in copies. They seem to have been widely admired and were still regularly played after Bach's death. It is not easy to say when and where they may have been performed, during public concerts or also during services. There is no direct link to the liturgy, but they may have been played before or after the service. Although pieces like these can be played on the pedal harpsichord, there are quite some pedal points which make this instrument less suited to the performance of these sonatas.

Two different recordings are reviewed here and it is almost inevitable to compare them. But as there are so many recordings to choose from, these two performances are no direct rivals. Moreover, recordings of Bach's organ works are hard to compare anyway, for several reasons.

The first thing is to choose an appropriate organ. Throughout his career Bach has known, played and examined many organs. Because of that it is not easy to tell which organ is the best for the performance of his own organ works. Considering the differences between organs of his time the choice of instrument has a considerable influence on the outcome. Secondly, the organist has a large number of different registers at his disposal. Even though some experts believe that it is possible to broadly outline the kind of registrations Bach preferred for some genres - for instance the preludes and fugues - the organist still has considerable freedom to choose a registration. Thirdly, especially in recordings of organ music the acoustic has a substantial influence on the interpretation, for instance the choice of tempo. Obviously the organist has to take slower tempi in the fast movements in a church with a large reverberation. This has to be taken into account in any assessment of a performance. For the listener it is not always possible to get a realistic picture of the acoustical circumstances, because he can't check to what extent the recording technique has been used to manipulate the sound of the organ in a particular environment.

These observations are relevant here. Ullrich Böhme has chosen five different organs: four from the 18th century and the Bach organ of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig which dates from 2000. The interesting thing is that the three sonatas in minor keys are played on organs in Chorton (a=465 Hz), whereas the three in major key sonatas are performed at organs in Kammerton (a=415 Hz). The Leipzig Bach organ can be played in both pitches by virtue of a pitch coupler. The organs by Hildebrand (Naumburg) and Silbermann (Freiberg, Dresden) belong to Bach's sound world. The Woehl organ in Leipzig is based on a specification designed by Johann Christoph Bach (I) for the Stertzing organ of the Georgenkirche in Eisenach (1697-1707). The Riepp organ in Ottobeuren is a mixture of German and French elements, much in the style of Andreas Silbermann - brother of Gottfried - who worked in Strasbourg. The organ by Johann Christoph Wiegleb in Ansbach which Rainer Goede plays, is also in the tradition which was established in Thuringia. This organ was largely destroyed in the course of time, but recently it could be reconstructed thanks to historical material from other organs by this builder.

The registrations are very different. Ullrich Böhme opts for a registration with a number of stops on any Werk of the organ, with a mostly more moderate registration in the slow movements. In contrast Rainer Goede has decided to play these sonatas almost like chamber music. Every movement is played on two manuals and pedal - except the Sonata in C where three manuals are used - and Goede uses only one stop for each manual. It is rather ironic that in his liner-notes Goede writes about the Wiegleb organ that "[the] abundance of timbres corresponds with Bach's desire for a very large and very beautiful organ". With only one stop on each manual - in the pedal he even uses the same in all movements - very little of that "abundance of timbres" comes off here. It is odd that he plays all movements of a sonata with the same registration. But what really puts me off is Goede's decision to use the tremulant in every sonata and every movement. I can't see any reason for that whatsoever. As the acoustic doesn't seem very reverberant I tend to think that Goede's tempi are sometimes too slow, for instance in the last movement from the Sonata in C. Böhme has generally the more satisfying tempi and he often brings quite some excitement to the sonatas, for instance those in E flat and in G.

In addition the recording is rather indirect; the miking in Böhme's recording is much better. The choice of organs and the registrations results in the latter's performances making a much stronger impression. To that I would add that his articulation is generally better and his performances are overall more differentiated. Goede's recording could have been an interesting alternative because of the very modest and rather intimate registration, but the incessant use of the tremulant and the less than ideal recording spoils the party. Böhme's playing and the use of various organs of different character makes his recording a worthwhile addition to the discography.

That said, there is a good reason to investigate Goede's recording. That is his recording of the complete set of fugues which were written by Christian Friedrich Gottlieb Schwenke. He studied with Friedrich Wilhelm Marpurg and Johann Philipp Kirnberger in Berlin and in 1788 he succeeded Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach as Musikdirektor in Hamburg. He held this post until his death. It is not known when these fugues were written; they were published posthumously in Leipzig in 1823. However, there are good reasons to assume that they were composed not long before that as stylistically they are quite close to the organ works of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Rainer Goede emphasizes that through his registrations. This recording could well be the first; had never encountered Schwenke on disc before. These fugues are quite good and I like the performances much better than those of Bach's trio sonatas.

Johan van Veen (© 2017)

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