IN: Reviews

Three Organists Play Bach for BEMF


Fowkes organ in First Lutheran Church
Richards, Fowkes organ in First Lutheran Church

The Boston Early Music Festival’s Sixth Organ “Mini-Festival” took place Thursday,  at Boston’s First Lutheran Church. Three organists contributed recitals under the general heading “The Genius of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750).” Their selections, presented in roughly chronological order, provided an overview of the music that Bach wrote for the instrument over the course of some four decades.

To report the last first, the event concluded with an afternoon recital by John Scott, formerly of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, now at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New York. This was a superb performance of Part 3 from Bach’s Clavierübung, the modestly titled “Keyboard Practice” which was actually the composer’s culminating work for keyboard instruments. Part 3, which Bach published in 1739, consists mostly of what we call chorale preludes: elaborated versions of traditional Lutheran hymn tunes. These are framed by a grand opening prelude and a closing fugue.

To play these 23 distinct pieces in order (Scott omitted the four duos), as a cycle, is probably as historically inauthentic as to do so for Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, another encyclopedic work. Whether such a performance makes sense as a contemporary concert program is equally open to question, given the longueurs that can arise in some of the more esoteric movements and the absence of a clear musical shape or direction arising out of their particular sequence. But there is a well-established modern tradition of performing and recording the music integrally, and when played as brilliantly as by Scott one can hardly complain.

The performance, carried out without a break, lasted for some ninety-five minutes, during which I detected no significant lapses of any sort, a remarkable feat in playing music as intellectually and physically demanding as this. Usually in a performance of this work, there is a loss of tension in certain movements, as in the archaic Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie sequence that follows the opening prelude. Yet Scott made these as compelling as anything, and the last of the pedaliter Kyries was made particularly impressive by a subtle, controlled deceleration that coincided with the startling series of remote chromatic modulations in the piece’s final passage. (The chorale settings alternate between ten or eleven for hands alone and an equal number that involve the feet as well, playing the organ pedals. These pedaliter movements are longer and more taxing, not only for the player but for the listener.)

Scott’s playing is not only clear but also reveals deep insight into Bach’s counterpoint and harmony. From the opening of the prelude to the end of the fugue, his technical mastery of the music seemed almost irrelevant, for his playing, while free of mannerism, is expressive, full of nuances that reflect the structure of the composition.

In a performance as impressive as this it is not easy to single out individual items. But I would be remiss not to mention the very lively performance of the pedaliter “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland”—almost too lively, in that the rapid tempo perhaps made some complex passages glide by too evenly. Yet it was exhilarating to hear such virtuoso music played with complete confidence eighty-five minutes into the program. Notable in this piece as well was a particularly bright registration, although throughout the program Scott made excellent choices that displayed the wonderful timbral possibilities of the North German Baroque-style organ built by Richards, Fowkes & Co. in 2000, 2010.

Earlier in the day, William Porter, who directed the event as a whole, also provided the first offering: “The Young Bach: Ohrdruf to Weimar.” Ohrdruf was the town where the ten-year-old Bach went to live with his older brother after the death of his parents. Whether Bach composed any music there and whether any of it survives remains uncertain. Most of the music played on the first two recitals probably dates from Bach’s time at the ducal court of Weimar (later the city of Schiller and Goethe) from 1708 to 1717.

As Porter noted in his extensive prefatory remarks, the oldest of the day’s three soloists presented works that the composer had written earliest in his career. He might have added, however, that placing any of these works in a given time and place not only remains controversial among specialists, but is also to some degree a matter of definition. For instance, the G-minor prelude and fugue that Porter played (BWV 535) exists in at least three versions. The earliest may date from as early as 1707 or so, but the last received its final touches as late as the 1740s. Porter chose to play the early version of the prelude but the late version of the fugue—a significant choice, for the revised version of the fugue is more refined but also more ornate, less austere, than the early one, reflecting a substantial change in Bach’s compositional style.

Porter, formerly at New England Conservatory, now teaches at Eastman (in Rochester) and McGill (in Montreal). As he mentioned in his opening remarks, even Bach’s early works, including this G-minor prelude and fugue, continue to be popular with players. Indeed, Bach himself seems to have continued to use this particular piece in his teaching throughout his life (a point made by this reviewer in his forthcoming new edition of the work, part of a series being issued by the German publisher Breitkopf & Härtel).

The same was not true, however, of the so-called Neumeister chorales, which passed into obscurity and were identified as Bach’s only in the 1980s. Their attribution to him continues to be met with reservations by some scholars. Porter offered three of these, as well as the Partita (or variations) on the chorale melody “O Gott, du frommer Gott.” The latter work is certainly by Bach, less certainly intended for organ. Indeed, none of these early chorale compositions require organ pedals, although they assuredly do sound most effectively on a beautifully designed organ like First Lutheran’s, as opposed to a harpsichord or clavichord.

The major works on Porter’s program were the so-called Pièce d’orgue (a fantasia in G, BWV 572) and three preludes and fugues. The latter, besides the G-minor, included the early one in C major (BWV 531), whose trumpet-like opening provided an appropriate fanfare at the start of the concert, and the E-major (BWV 566), which ended the program. In each of these, Porter chose to vary the registration from one section to the next. I found this unnecessary, tending to break up pieces that were probably still conceived as continuous improvisations rather than as distinct movements (the E-major piece is actually a praeludium comprising two separate prelude-and-fugue sequences). This, however, is a quibble.

The day’s central performance was by the Milan organist Lorenzo Ghielmi, who teaches at the Schola Cantorum in Basel (Switzerland). His recital was titled “The Mature Bach: Weimar to Leipzig,” although in truth all his selections were likely drafted at Weimar, most of them probably during the earlier part of Bach’s time there.

Richards, Fowkes (BMInt staff photo)
Richards, Fowkes (BMInt staff photo)

Bookending Ghielmi’s program were the Prelude and Fugue in A minor (BWV 543) and the Toccata in C (BWV 564). Both are grand yet slightly undisciplined pieces that reveal the still youthful Bach at his most exuberant, spinning out long sequences of regularly patterned yet infectious virtuoso passagework. In between came selections from Bach’s two Weimar collections of organ chorales, the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) and the so-called Eighteen Chorales. There were also two important pieces inspired by music from Italy: the Fugue in B minor on themes from a trio sonata by Corelli, and Bach’s arrangement of Vivaldi’s Concerto in D minor, op. 3, no. 11.

These were clear, no-nonsense performances. If occasionally unrelenting—particularly in the fugues—such playing, as one fellow audience member suggested to me, is preferable to the obtrusive, self-indulgent or arbitrary manipulations of tempo and registration that often characterized Bach organ playing 20 or 30 years ago. Within the sphere of “early music,” Bach’s organ music remains something of a special taste, neglected by audiences that flock to the latest folk-Baroque cross-over concert or yet another Brandenburg set. The ample audience for the three players in this mini-festival seems to have consisted in large part of fellow organists. Yet performances such as these could convince anyone that this music is no less compelling, and no less astonishingly original, than anything else Bach wrote.

David Schulenberg is a harpsichordist and author of Music of the Baroque and The Keyboard Music of J. S. Bach. He teaches at Wagner College in New York City. His website is here.

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  1. Thank you for this fine review of three excellent recitals.

    Comment by Joyce Painter Rice — June 15, 2013 at 11:54 pm

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