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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750): "Bach in Montecassino"

Luca Guglielmi, organ

rec: Oct 19 - 21, 2014, Alice Castello, Chiesa di San Nicolao
Vivat - 108 (© 2015) (69'12")
Liner-notes: E/D/F/I

Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 675); Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 687); Christe, aller Welt Trost (BWV 673); Duetto I in e minor (BWV 802); Duetto II in F (BWV 803); Duetto III in G (BWV 804); Duetto IV in a minor (BWV 805); Fantasia in c minor (BWV 537,1); Fantasia chromatica in d minor (BWV 903a); Fantasia super Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 713); Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904); Fuga di Bach per il Padre Martini in C (BWV 846,2); Fuga sopra il Magnificat (BWV 733); Fughetta super Wir glauben all an einen Gott (BWV 681); Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 753); Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist (BWV 674); Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit (BWV 672); Preludio di Bach per il Padre Martini in C (BWV 870b); Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 683); Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein (BWV 668a)

"Bach in Montecassino" - that is certainly an intriguing title for a disc with organ music by Johann Sebastian Bach. Obviously his music is played on many different organs - old and new - across the world. In most cases there is no link between Bach and such organs, but here it is different. There is no direct connection: Bach never left the central and northern part of Germany. However, there is another, indirect link here: Bach's music was known in the convent of Montecassino thanks to the visits of one of his greatest admirers and promoters, Friedrich Wilhelm Rust.

Montecassino (or Monte Cassino) is a rocky hill about 130 kilometres southeast of Rome. Here St. Benedict of Nursia established his first monastery around 529. During its history it was destroyed several times and then rebuilt. The last major rebuilding took place in the 14th century after it had been destroyed once again, this time by an earthquake. In 1944 is was again destroyed, when it was bombed by Allied forces. Some years before the bombing many of its treasures had been transferred to a safer place.

In 1765/66 the above-mentioned Friedrich Wilhelm Rust visited Italy in the retinue of Prince Leopold Friedrich Franz of Anhalt-Dessau. He was educated as an organist, studied composition with Wilhelm Friedemann Bach and violin with Franz Benda. From early in his career he was interested in Bach's music; at the age of 16 he was able to play his Wohltemperirte Clavier from memory. While visiting the Montecassino monastery he played the organ and then left some manuscripts of Bach's keyboard music there. Two years later the German architect Christian Traugott Weinlig, brother of the composer Christian Ehregott Weinlig, visited Montecassino and the monastery's organist played music by Bach. It was Rust's grandson, Wilhelm, who was one of the main editors of the first edition of Bach's oeuvre.

The pieces in the collection of Friedrich Wilhelm Rust are one of the two sources for this recording. The second is the library of Padre Giovanni Battista Martini (1706-1784), one of the most important theorists of his time who stood in contact with numerous musicians and composers across Europe. Among his pupils were Johann Christian Bach and Mozart. He had a reputation for being rather conservative which came especially to the fore in his preference for counterpoint. That must have been one of the reasons that he admired the works of Bach. The booklet quotes a letter from 1750 in which Martini states: "I will only say that I believe it would be difficult to find a Master superior to him, as at the present time he can rightly claim to be one of the very best in Europe". It would be interesting to know how pieces like the Musicalisches Opfer and the Kunst der Fuge came to be part of his library. It is unlikely he had direct contact with Bach, and one may assume it was through the wide circle of Bach's students that he became acquainted with his oeuvre.

Part of his collection was also the Clavier-Übung III, extracts from which are a major part of this disc. Luca Guglielmi selected pieces which could have been played in Montecassino as they are not in conflict with Catholic doctrines. The hymns are all in German, but in substance identical with classical texts from the Mass: Kyrie - Christe - Kyrie, Gloria and Credo. In addition we hear the Pater noster (Vater unser im Himmelreich) and the penitential psalm 129 (130), De profundis (Aus tiefer Not). Also included are the four duets which seem outsiders in this collection, although several explanations for their inclusion have been given. Some connect them to the appendix of Luther's Catechism, which is the foundation of the Clavier-Übung III. The Fuga sopra il Magnificat is based on the plainchant melody and therefore well suited to a programme of music which could have been played in a Catholic monastery.

We also hear several early versions of pieces which are quite familiar. The Preludio in C (BWV 870b) and the Fuga in C (BWV 846,2) have found their way into the second and first part of the Wohltemperirte Clavier respectively. The Chromatic fantasy and fugue in d minor is one of Bach's most famous keyboard works, always played on harpsichord. Guglielmi plays a version of the fantasy which has been preserved in manuscript and is part of the collection of Rust's brother Johann Ludwig Anton. The Fantasia and fugue in a minor (BWV 904) are ranked among the harpsichord works in the catalogue of Bach's works but, according to Guglielmi, "works even better when transferred to the organ, for which it is more idiomatic".

This is Bach from a different angle than we are used to. Guglielmi documents a part of the Bach reception of the late 18th century which is not that well-known. Bach was familiar with the music written in Italy and in France, but his music is generally thought to have been largely unknown outside Germany until the 19th century. This disc shows things in a different light.

It would have been very exciting to hear this programme on the organ of Montecassino which Friedrich Wilhelm Rust has played. However, as we have seen, the monastery was destroyed in 1944, and with it the organ. Guglielmi plays the organ of the Chiesa di San Nicolao in Alice Castello. It was built in 1749 by Michele Ramasco, extended by Giovanni and Giacinto Bruna in 1802 and restored in 1999/2000. As is the case with most Italian organs from before the 19th century it has only one manual. It is divided into descant and bass to which some stops are exclusively connected. This allows contrasting registrations for the right and the left hand which is especially important in chorale arrangements. The organ has a pull-down pedalboard which means that it makes use of the stops connected to the manual. Interestingly Guglielmi avoids the viola 4' and violoncello 16' in his registrations. It seems that these stops were absent in German organs of Bach's time. That just shows that Guglielmi is an intelligent player who is aware of what was common in Bach's time and region and is willing to take the consequences. However, one could probably argue that these stops may have been used by the organist who played Bach in the Montecassino monastery in the 1760s.

The only point of criticism could be the change of registration in some pieces. In particular the addition of stops in the closing section of Aus tiefer Not is something I find questionable. The Chromatic fantasy is brilliantly played, and its improvisatory features are perfectly conveyed. The Magnificat-fugue and the Duets are nicely articulated; the latter's rather swift tempi are spot-on. The chorale arrangement Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein receives a moving performance, but any sentimentality is rightly avoided.

This Italian organ is surprisingly well suited to Bach's music. Guglielmi is a highly skilled and stylish interpreter, and this combination of instrument and interpreter results in a splendid disc which no organ aficionado should miss. I will certainly regularly return to it. I should not forget to mention the useful and informative liner-notes by Guglielmi. These are well translated into English and include details on organ disposition and the registration of every single piece.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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Luca Guglielmi

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