BACH: Art of Fugue; PACHELBEL: Canon in D; Chaconne in F; 13 Chorale Preludes; Chaconne – Barbara Harbach, organ – MSR Classics (2 CDs)

BACH: Art of Fugue, BWV 1080; PACHELBEL: Canon in D; Chaconne in F;  13 Chorale Preludes; Chaconne in D – Barbara Harbach, organ – MSR Classics MS 1442 (2 CDs), 148:53 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Barbara Harbach, Professor of Music at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, has toured extensively as both concert organist and harpsichordist throughout the United States and Canada, and overseas in Belgium, Bosnia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Korea, Romania, Serbia and Russian Siberia. For this recording of the Bach she has chosen the Fisk Organ at Downtown United Presbyterian Church, Rochester, New York, and for the Pachelbel the Fisk Organ at Slee Hall at the State University of Buffalo, Buffalo, New York.

The arguments over Bach’s Art of Fugue will never end; what was it for, what instrument should it be played on, should it be completed, on and on it goes. As far as I am concerned, and despite the supposedly “didactic” nature of the work—which one could really claim about all of Bach’s work to a certain extent, I think this was meant to be played. Bach’s entire life testifies against any idea of time spent on a theoretical piece—especially of this size—simply as an academic exercise or a meditation on “pure” fugal composition for the sake of intellectual pondering. It would be the first time he ever did this if it proves to be the case. No; he meant the thing to be performed, for music was a palpable and resonating art form that demanded performance in Bach’s view.

So which instrument? It seems to me obvious that the most practical and comprehensive instrument to be found for such an undertaking is right here on this recording. Only an organ can loftily cover all the demands of this piece, and it greatly expands the idea of color and registration within the confines of one person’s imagination. I have heard many worthy contenders on other instruments and for other combinations, but the organ remains the most convincing.

What about the ending? This has perplexed artists for years, especially as the original manuscript version does have an ending, fully in place ten years before the published version. But evidence shows that Bach was not content with the work, revising it, and finally dying before the last quadruple fugue was completed. I have never found the newly-composed completions of this work to be satisfactory and the ending of a chorale prelude sounds out of place in a piece like this. The sudden cutoff, so profoundly a reminder of genius stopped, adds a pathetic dimension of great emotion and drama, and I am happy that Harbach does that here. This is an excellent reading of this work done with thoughtfulness and a lot of passion.

The Pachelbel works might seem a little superfluous in such a setting, but they actually serve as a nice come-down from the fugal complexities and utter perfection of the Bach. The famous Canon is nicely presented, not in the same contrapuntal web as the original scoring, and it proves very enjoyable even if it hardly replaces the original. The two Chaconnes are fine works, very involved and dramatic, the D-minor of an exquisite fiery sensibility that Pachelbel nonetheless keeps under control. He is best known for his chorale preludes, and these thirteen selections show why; an ever-inventive nature that is able to wed seasonal requirements to music that is fully descriptive and yet brilliantly independent make for enthralling listening on a number of levels.  The tonal characteristics of the Fisk organ at Slee Hall offer lots of opportunities for experimentation and a truly crisp presentation of these works.

The engineers have captured both venues very well, and Harbach is to be congratulated on a fine offering.

—Steven Ritter

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