Beautifully crafted performances of some introspective works.

BACH: Schubler and Leipzig Chorales; Canonic Variations – Kare Nordstoga, organ – LAWO Classics multichannel SACD LWC1056 (2 discs), TT: 210:53 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:

The Canonic Variations on “From heaven above to earth I come” is not a long work, nor is it the most torrential the composer ever created. But at a time later in life when the cantatas were behind him, this curious “entrance exam” to the Society of the Musical Sciences, only three years before his death, strikes a chord of infused emotionality that breathes the composer’s piety in a way that few of his works do. The quiet contrapuntal mastery radiates from every bar in this fearless work, making it one of the seminal organ pieces ever created.

We must travel back in time to the earlier Weimar chorales that Bach revisited when in Leipzig in the creation of his Eighteen Chorale Preludes of Various Kinds. The music is a more sophisticated reworking of pieces that might actually have been composed as early as 1708. The Schubler Chorales, Six Chorale Preludes of Various Kinds, are so-called because Johann Georg Schubler was the man who published them, making them among the few actually in print during Bach’s lifetime. There is a basis for the popularity of these preludes, even in Bach’s time, as they are versions of various cantata movements from the early Leipzig years (1724-31) with emphasis on some of his most famous melodies. How widespread these were at the time is anyone’s guess, but the mere fact of their publication speaks volumes during that era.

The Schnitger organ of St. Martin’s Church in Groningen makes for a marvelous venue for this Super Audio spectacular, and Kare Nordstoga, organist at the Oslo Cathedral, turns in colorful and well-turned readings of great persuasion. These are in many ways meditative works and will not satisfy those wanting the typical Bach organ fireworks; but for those willing to wade a little further out in the world of Bachian wonders, well worth your time.

—Steven Ritter