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Bach: Die Achtzehn Chorale fur Orgel aus der Leipziger.

The 18 chorales are here played on the organ of the Stiftskirche, Muri (Canton Aargau, Switzerland), by the Swiss organist Jean-Claude Zehnder, a pupil of Anton Heiller and Gustav Leonhardt. Zehnder has recently established a reputation as a Bach scholar, having published important articles in the Bach-Jahrbuch on Bach and Georg Bohm (1988) and on Bach and Torelli (1991).

The most original feature of this recording is that each chorale prelude is followed by a four-part vocal setting of the same melody. This reflects the probable liturgical use of many of the organ chorales as introductions to congregational hymns. The verse or verses of the chorale sung here are those which Zehnder believes Bach may have had in mind when composing the organ chorales.

This is a highly imaginative approach, placing Bach's organ settings in their true light as musical symbols of the chorale text. However, a subjective element is inevitable, for no one can be certain that his or her choice of verses symbolized in the organ chorales, however probable, is correct. In addition, today's audiences are very different from Bach's Leipzig congregations, to whom the chorales were completely familiar. From this point of view it would have been preferable to place the vocal setting before the organ one. Even so, it has to be admitted that the singing of the Klosterchor, Wettingen, is little more than adequate and that their presence greatly adds to the length of the CDs (66.35 and 60 mins).

Zehnder's playing comes across as totally committed, always emphasizing meaning - in the sense of relation to text - above all. His interpretations, necessarily subjective in choice of tempo, registration and so on, are nonetheless for the most part convincing and sensitive. Some may find certain chorales (Fantasia on Komm, Heiliger Geist, Trio on Herr Jesu Christ, Vor deinen Thron) rather too deliberate or matter-of-fact. But Zehnder is commendably unobtrusive and reliable in the traditional favourites (An Wasserflussen Babylon, Schmucke dich, the first Nun komm setting). And his playing in inspired passages such as verse 3 of O Lamm Gottes, with its mysterious chromatic interlude, fully measures up to the profundity of the music.

It is now known that much of the autograph of The art of fugue dates from around 1742, roughly the time when Bach finished compiling The well-tempered clavier, book 2. The later work was in all probability conceived, like its immediate predecessor, as a didactic fugal work for clavier - the term Bach used when he wanted to remain deliberately unspecific about the precise medium of performance. Harpsichord, Clavichord, organ, even (in the late works) fortepiano - all are possible candidates for Bach's clavier works, unless he specified otherwise. Thus organ performance of The art of fugue is perfectly justified and, as Alain points out in her notes, can clarify the contrapuntal texture better than other keyboard instruments.

It is hard to imagine a more satisfying organ performance than Marie-Claire Alain gives here on the organ by A. Kern (1975) at L'Eglise Saint-Martin, Masevaux (Haut-Rhin, France). Her variety of tempo and registration constantly draws attention to the range of style that sets off the works monothematic logic. And changes of registration are used tellingly to articulate the triple fugues nos.8 and 11 and the quadruple fugue no.14. Alain's playing in the highly chromatic no.11, in which the themes of no.8 are inverted, can only be described as awesome, reflecting the music's profound mystery and intensity. Two reservations - one small, the other major - are the rather over-leisurely tempos of certain fugues (nos.1, 3, 10 and 12) and the order in which the pieces are played, an arbitrary one influenced by the autograph early version and by the ideas and preferences of Jacques Chailley and of Alain herself. Particularly odd is the placing of no.11 before no.8, which contradicts the underlying principle of progressively increasing contrapuntal complexity. It is now generally accepted by Bach scholars that the movement order of the original edition up to no.13 is authentic.

Finally, it should be noted that Alain, following the autograph, breaks off at bar 239 of the unfinished quadruple fugue rather than attempting a conjectural completion.

Kenneth Gilbert's recital, played on a harpsichord by Jan Couchet (Antwerp, 1671), includes three of the seven toccatas that rank as Bach's most important early clavier works, including the two finest and most mature those in F# minor and C minor, BWV910-11 (c.1706-12). He also plays the roughly contemporary Aria variata, BWV989, a set of variations perhaps based on an anonymous Italian theme. The earliest work in the recital is the programmatic Capriccio on the absence [ not ~departure', as Malcolm Boyd points out] of his beloved brother, BWV992, which records family feelings over Johann Jacob Bach's enlistment in the service of Charles XII of Sweden around 1704-6. The only middle-period work Gilbert plays is the magnificent Prelude and Fugue in A minor, BWV894, a concerto in all but name (though lacking the central slow movement) and later arranged as such - namely, as the Concerto for flute, violin, harpsichord, strings and continuo, BWV1044. BWV894 must date from after Bach's Vivaldi transcriptions of 1713/14.

Gilbert's playing is in general hard to fault, unless perhaps in occasional choices of tempo. Some of the big fugues (those of BWV910-11 in particular) are taken rather too deliberately for my taste. The wonderful ruminating chords of the third section of the F# minor Toccata could perhaps be somewhat more spacious. And I cannot help feeling that Gilbert has mistaken the character of the very Kuhnau-tike second section of the Capriccio, riding a little roughshod over the richly elaborate texture, which represents the ~unterschiedlicher Casuum, die ihm in der Fremde konnten vorfallen' (~the various accidents that could happen to him abroad'). On the other hand, the ground-bass Lament in the same work and the two closing sections, with their charming posthorn imitations, are delightfully played. The final section of the Toccata in G minor, BWV915 - a sort of carly clavier ~grosse Fuge' - is handled with tremendous vigour and assurance. And in BWV894 Gilbert does full justice to one of Bach's grandest virtuoso harpsichord works.

In the fourth of these Bach recordings Bob van Asperen plays (on a harpsichord by Michael Johnson after a Taskin instrument of 1764) three of the eight - or, to be more precise, seven and a fragment - solo harpsichord concertos that Bach collected together in thc Berlin manuscript P234 around 1738. Since the recording is labelled ~Vol.1, one assumes that the remaining five (or four) are to follow. Bach's harpsichord concertos are still in need of such advocacy. Karl Geiringer regarded them as ~more significant from a historical than from an aesthetic point of view' - a judgement that reflects the tendency, which still lingers in some quarters, to undervalue Bach's arrangements and parodies. (Nearly all the harpsichord concertos are arrangements of Weimar or Cothen works for solo violin or oboe.) In reality, the originals are often so artistically reworked that their arrangements deserve to be regarded as new compositions in their own right.

Asperen is accompanied by Melante Amsterdam playing one per part, which results in admirably clear textures. The harpsichord playing suffers at times from being rather too mannered (at least for my taste), especially in the florid slow movements. In particular, the dotted rhythms in the Siciliano of the E major concerto, BWV1053, seem too pointed, which detracts from the highly expressive, richly figured melody and from the gentle pastoral atmosphere traditionally associated with the siciliano. However, it would be churlish to end on a carping note. Asperen and his small band are splendidly vivacious in the fast movements, and they capture well the sense of inexorable growth in both outer movements of the great D minor concerto, BWV1052, towards a climax of virtuosity.
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Author:Jones, Richard D.P.
Publication:Early Music
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:1301
Previous Article:Heinichen: Dresden Concerti.
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