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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "1714 Silbermann Organ of Freiberg Cathedral"

David Goode, organ

rec: July 4 - 6, 2010, Freiberg, Dom
Signum Classics - SIGCD261 (© 2011) (80'26")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

Concerto in a minor (BWV 593); O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622); Passacaglia and fugue in c minor (BWV 582); Prelude and fugue in b minor (BWV 544); Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 654); Toccata, adagio and fugue in C (BWV 564); Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541); Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682)

Every organist who is interested in playing the organ works by Bach in the most 'authentic' manner would like to find the organ which is ideally suited for Bach's oeuvre. Unfortunately such an organ does not exist. During the course of his life Bach has played various organs by different builders, and he himself was organist at various places with different organs. That makes it impossible to regard one specific organ as the Bach organ. For the Signum Classics production with organ works by Bach "[we] wanted to find the kind of organ that the composer would have played, one untouched by progress, and one whose pitch and tuning had been maintained", Oliver Condy writes in the booklet. They found such an organ in Freiberg, where Gottfried Silbermann built an organ between 1711 and 1714 which has remained unaltered since a modification in 1738. In the liner-notes to his recording on another Silbermann organ in Freiberg - which has no less than four instruments by this builder within its frontiers - Jan Katzschke states that "the idealised partnership of Bach and Silbermann is a myth of the 20th century" (Ambiente ACD 2017, 2008). We don't know that much about Bach's opinion of Silbermann's instruments, but Katzsche mentions Bach's criticism of Silbermann's tuning which he found "too idiosyncratic". Better documented is Bach's great appreciation of the organs of Silbermann's apprentice, Zacharias Hildebrandt.

Even though Silbermann organs may be not the ideal instruments for the whole of Bach's oeuvre it is understandable that many organists like to perform them on such instruments. The organ in the cathedral is a large instrument with three manuals and tuned in unequal temperament. According to Russell Stinson Bach didn't like the unequal temperament of Silbermann's organs (M. Boyd, ed, J.S. Bach, Oxford Composer Companions, 1999). From that perspective the organ which Katzsche chose to play - tuned in Neidhardt II - may be a better choice. But in his early years Bach must have played organs in mean-tone temperament, and therefore the early works are probably most suitable for the cathedral organ.

David Goode has chosen some of the best-known pieces by Bach. This choice was probably inspired by the consideration that at least the British music lovers - for which this disc may have been intended in the first place - are not that acquainted with Bach's organ music. In countries like Germany and the Netherlands where so many organs from the 18th century have been preserved, his organ works are frequently performed. On the main organ type in England - the symphonic organ of the 19th century - Bach can hardly be played appropriately. Therefore this disc may go down better in Britain and in other countries with hardly any baroque organs than on the continent.

Goode starts with one of Bach's most brilliant organ works, the Toccata, adagio and fugue in C (BWV 564). No autograph exists, but a copy from around 1719 has been preserved, so it was written before his time in Leipzig. The toccata is played in a relatively moderate tempo, and its improvisatory character comes off very well. Several phrases are repeated and they are played as echos. That is rather questionable; not every repeated passage in Bach's organ works can be interpreted as an echo. It is more likely that they have to be considered a confirmation of the previous statement, according to the rules of rhetorics. The adagio is a little less satisfying; it is a shade too fast, and the regular change of manuals is unnecessary. More differentation between the notes would have been desirable. The fugue is then played in a registration which is quite different from that of the toccata. As a result their unity is damaged. Many experts believe that pairs of toccata/prelude and fugue should be played with the same registration. Goode uses too many colours here; this is only possible with the help of a registrant, but many believe that this kind of figure did not exist in Bach's time. The ending is surprising and based on a misconception. The notes say that "[the] carefree, tossed-away ending is typical of Bach's unexpected touches". But this work is reminiscent of the North-German organ school, with its stylus phantasticus. It was common to end a figue with a toccata-like passage, closing the circle, as it were. Therefore the fugue should end with a powerful statement, reminding the listener of the toccata.

The Prelude and fugue in b minor (BWV 544) was written between 1727 and 1731 and shows some parallels with the St Matthew Passion dating from the same period. This piece is played quite well; unfortunately the articulation of the subject of the fugue is not clear enough. The fugue consists of three episodes; the contrasts in the performance are probably a little exaggerated. The Prelude and fugue in G (BWV 541) dates from the same period. The theme of the fugue is the major version of the opening chorus of Cantata 21, Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis. It is one of the very few organ works which has a tempo indication: 'vivace', which is well realised by David Goode. The connection between prelude and fugue is rightfully observed.

With the Passacaglia and fugue in c minor Goode returns to Bach's early years. It is clearly inspired by Buxtehude, whereas the subject of the fugue is the 'Christe eleison' from the Messe du 12e ton by André Raison (1688). The German organist Hubert Meister sees this piece as a meditation on Christ, the principium et fundamentum. Towards the end Bach uses the rhetorical figure of the exclamatio which is followed by a pause. Its effect is damaged by the addition of some ornamental notes by Goode. Before that he also added some ornamentation which is rather arbitrary. Otherwise his performance of this monumental work is quite good.

In between these large pieces he plays some specimens of Bach's art of chorale arrangement. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele (BWV 654) is nicely played, but a little too fast. Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682) is not entirely convincing; the cantus firmus is not that clearly audible and the playing of the accompanying voices is a bit awkward. O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß (BWV 622) comes off best. The Concerto in a minor (BWV 593), an arrangement of a piece for strings by Vivaldi, is well played, although the changes in registration between the two fast movements are debatable.

To sum up, this disc is a mixed success. There is much to enjoy, but not all the interpretations are convincing from a historical point of view.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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David Goode

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