in: Reviews

June 19, 2011

“Leipzig” Chorales in Capable Hands of William Porter

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This is a review of the third part of the fifth Organ Mini-Festival, within the Boston Early Music Festival: an afternoon concert by the Mini-Festival’s director William Porter presenting all of Bach’s “Leipziger” Chorales, BWV 651-68 on Thursday, June 16, at the First Lutheran Church, Boston. The first two parts were performed by James David Christie and Luca Guglielmi on the C. B. Fisk “Sweelinck” organ in the Houghton Chapel at Wellesley College earlier that same day.

Before retreating upstairs to the Richards, Fowkes & Co. organ, op. 10 (2000), Porter stepped to the chancel to say that he was not going to address the fact that the “Leipziger” Chorales were written in Weimar, or that only seventeen of these “Great Eighteen” chorales were on the program, because we could read that in the program booklet. But he did wish to call attention to the three new stops installed and voiced on this organ in the summer of 2010: (1) a Schalmei 4’ in the Ruckpositiv, (2) a Vox Humana 8’ in the Hauptwerk, and (3) a Cornet 2’ in the pedal. He also told us which chorales would feature each of these stops in which voices. Characteristic Porter in his gentle attention to detail!

Like one of BMint’s other reviewers (Rebecca Marchand), I too resisted buying the entire BEMF program book, so had to find my own solutions to his two puzzles, based on recent research by the British scholar-organist Peter Williams and “our own” Christoph Wolff. Seventeen of the chorales (BWV 651-657) were probably begun before 1717 while Bach was organist in the court of Wilhelm Ernst, Duke of Saxe-Weimar. As Bach’s son, C.P.E. Bach wrote in his father’s obituary, “His grace’s delight in his playing fired him to attempt everything possible in the art of how to treat the organ. Here he also wrote most of his organ works.” The organ at the court comprised two manual keyboards and a pedal-board; hence the multiple chorales of trio texture. Bach moved to Leipzig in 1723. His revisions of BWV 651 through BWV 665, between 1739 and 1747, survive in his own hand in a manuscript (P. 271) now in Berlin. Shortly before his death in 1750, and nearly blind, he dictated revisions to BWV 666 and 667 to his student and son-in-law Johann Christoph Altnikol, who copied them posthumously into the same manuscript. (If you’re counting, that makes seventeen; more about BWV 668 later.)

Porter was committed to playing all the “Leipziger” Chorales, but not necessarily in order, with inspired design of his own intelligence. They were presented in two “programs,” one beginning at 2:00 and one precisely at 3:15 as he announced. Both began with chorales functioning as “openers,” specifically BWV 651, “Fantasia super Komm Heiliger Geist” (Program 1) and BWV 652, the entirely fugal “Komm, Heiliger Geist” (Program 2). Program 1 seemed intended to show off various individual chorales that made good use of the trio texture of the two manuals and pedal and revealed Bach’s myriad ways of treating the chorale melody. The cantus firmus (i.e., the chorale tune) was sometimes in the soprano, and sometimes in the pedal; sometimes treated homophonically with an imitative introduction to each phrase, sometimes with the addition of many sequences. The most elaborate was the last, the long “O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig” (BWV 656), in three verses, with its wild, chromatic maneuvering near the end.

The air conditioning was turned on for the second program, no doubt at Porter’s instigation, because he was perspiring heavily up there, but at quiet times it was a bit intrusive. He had designed this program to compare contrasting settings of three chorales: Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659-661), Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 662-664), and Jesus Christus, unser heiland (BWV 666, 665, i.e. in reverse order, so that 665, “sub communione,” i.e. with its extended length probably used during communion, full of chromaticism ended the program). All three of the Allein Gott settings used the trio texture, but with the cantus firmus in a different key- or pedal-board. The Nun komm settings were highly contrasted, heightened by Porter’s strong registrations. The final Jesus Christus pair bore the most differentiated treatment by Bach himself.

These Achtzehn Choräle von verschiedener Art (Eighteen chorales of a different art), the title under which they were first published together in the complete works of 1875, have rarely been recorded in their entirety, much less performed live in one sitting. This concert was a stupendous accomplishment for the modest Mr. Porter. Moreover, the wisdom and clarity of his registrations, and our ability to hear every voice at every minute, was absolutely revelatory. His tempos were never rushed, but lively—e.g. the O Lamm Gottes umschuldig (BWV 656), last on Program 1, with its gentle tactus. Several members of the audience were following their own scores, and no wonder. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to hear and compare these magnificent works in the hands of a brilliant organist on an appropriate instrument.

Oh yes, the eighteenth chorale! After a thunderous ovation, Porter with great difficulty quieted the applause, to ask simply if we now wished hear it. (Answer obvious.) Quite a story lies behind it, most of it without substantive evidence. The first page was entered by an unknown copyist into the P. 271 manuscript with the title, Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit (“Before your throne I now appear”). Hence it became known as the “Deathbed Chorale,” and various biographers told some version of such a story. It is now generally accepted that this was a planned reworking of an earlier chorale, Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein from the Orgelbüchlein (1715). The encore ended with a chuckle of appreciation, and reluctant willingness to let Porter go after his long ordeal. After all, it was 4:30.

Mary Wallace Davidson has directed the music libraries at Radcliffe, Wellesley, Eastman School of Music, and Indiana University. She now lives in the Boston area.

 

 

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