SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

BACH: Frühe Orgel Werke (Early Bach Organ Works) – Harald Vogel, organ – MD&G

Despite some niggles about the playing, I can recommend this disc as a fine survey of early Bach on the organ.

Published on November 30, 2012

BACH: Frühe Orgel Werke (Early Bach Organ Works) – Harald Vogel, organ – MD&G

BACH: Frühe Orgel Werke = Prelude and Fugue in C Major; Fantasia ex c, BWV 1121; Wie nach einer Wasserquelle, BWV 1119; Fantasia ex Gb duobus subjectis, BWV 917; Herlizch lieb hab ich dich, BWV 115; Prelude in G Minor, BWV 535a; Prelude and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 535; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgnstern, BWV 739; Partite diverse sopra il Corale “Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen,” BWV 770; Ach Herr mich armen Sünder, BWV 742; CORELLI: Fugue in B Minor from Op. 3; BACH: Fugue on a Theme of Corelli in B Minor, BWV 579; Herlich tut mich erlangen, BWV 727; Nun freut euch, lieben Christen (Trio), BWV 734; Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 709; Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend (Chorale), BWV 726; Toccata in D Minor, BWV 565 – Harald Vogel, organ – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm multichannel SACD MDG 914 1743-6 (2+2+2), 74:00 [Distr. by E1] ***1/2:

Among the works on this program of early Bach, only the Toccata and Fugue, BWV 565, is well known, at least among listeners if not performers, and that may not even be by Bach—a shame, since for many it is the Bach organ piece. In his highly informative (and, thankfully, competently and idiomatically translated) notes to the recording, organist Harald Vogel notes the questions about the authenticity of  BWV 565 and then goes on to attribute it to Bach without a backward glance at the controversy surrounding the piece. Incidentally, the reason for doubt stems from the fact that it contains various stylistic features found nowhere else in Bach’s oeuvre, among them the many repeated toccata figures in octaves which is [sic] performed on different choruses on two manuals right at the start.” While I can’t make any educated comments about this, it’s interesting to note that the aforementioned Fantasia ex Gb duobus subjectis starts with a very similar “toccata figure,” which Vogel says is modeled on North German and Thuringian toccatas of the period. Is it possible that Bach later decided to expand his less demonstrative prelude into the virtuoso vehicle that is the toccata from BWV 565?

Both works have been dated to 1702 (when Bach was a mere seventeen) thanks to recent detective work by several scholars and by a study of the Möler Manuscript, which contains the earliest autograph scores by Bach, as well as transcriptions by his older brother Johann Christoph of works set down in letter tablature (the traditional method of musical notation in seventeenth-century Germany) by Johann Sebastian. Similarly, the later Fantasia ex c (1706) comes from another text assembled by Johann Christoph, the Andreas Bach Book. Here, the work appears in Johann Sebastian’s own letter-tablature notation.

Admittedly, there is about some of this music the air of the classroom, as if Bach is expanding on his studies with organist Georg Böhm and his perusal of works by Böhm, Buxtehude and other North German masters. As originator of the chorale partita, Bohm’s influence is certainly felt in Bach’s partita based on the chorale Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, while the virtuoso effects in Buxtehude’s preludes, toccatas, and fugues inform Bach’s pieces in the same genres. Then there is Bach’s take on Corelli’s B-minor fugue theme from the Trio Sonatas, Opus 3. Bach’s expansive treatment shows his early mastery of polyphony but results in a work that is more pedantry than showcase for his talents. Bach would later much more skillfully and memorably do the same for the works of Vivaldi (BWV 972 et al.).

Vogel’s notes include an interesting history of the Arp Schnitger organ in the church of SS. Peter and Paul in the North German town of Cappel. The organ was originally installed by Schnitger at the St. Johnnis-Klosterkirche in Hamburg in 1680, reusing “parts of the previous instrument” in a gesture that mirrors the borrowings of many a Baroque composer! The organ ended up at Cappel when the original sanctuary burned down and after rebuilding, the congregation found themselves strapped for cash, so resorted to buying a “gently used” instrument from Hamburg. It’s a gorgeous example of Baroque design and sounds like the perfect instrument for these mostly light-textured early works; only in BWV 565 do the pedal notes announce themselves with full force.

Mostly, Vogel is a fine interpreter of Bach though occasionally he underscores the pedantic nature of some of the music with stodgy tempi and four-square phrasing: BWV 579 and BWV 535 are probably the best (or worst) examples of this. But the famous BWV 565 is given a fine performance, as are Bach’s numerous chorale treatments. So on balance, these performances do a valuable service to Bach’s early career. The surround-sound recording seems to capture the ambience of the Cappel church and the character of Schnitger’s elegant little instrument perfectly. [And perhaps 2+2+2 playback does it even better for those few willing to go to the bother; I hope to be reviewing more of these soon…Ed.]

—Lee Passarella

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