Recording projects that seek to contextualise the organ music of J.S. Bach have a tendency to backfire. Interspersing his works with those of his teachers, contemporaries or pupils rarely does those other composers any favours. Often it merely reinforces the assumption that Bach’s music was the result of unique and unqualified genius. The careful programming on this disc has obviously been prepared with a mind to these dangers. Johann Sebastian only makes a single appearance, his Toccata in E BWV 566 the spectacular conclusion of the disc. Works by other composers have been chosen to highlight their stylistic diversity and individual merits.
The rationale for theRead more programme comes from Peter Williams’ recent
J.S.Bach: A Life in Music, a biography that sticks closer than most to the verifiable facts. Its basic source material is the obituary of Bach written by Carl Phillip Emanuel and Johann Agricola - son and pupil of Bach respectively - which was published in 1754. All of the composers featured on this recording are named in that document with reference to Johann Sebastian’s formative musical experiences. Froberger, Kerll and Pachelbel, for example, are all mentioned with reference to the so-called moonlight episode - when Bach copied out their works by night because he did not have his brother’s permission to borrow the volume. Böhm, Riencken and Buxtehude were all personal acquaintances to a greater or lesser extent.
There are no real surprises from the two best-known composers in the selection, Pachelbel and Buxtehude. The former is represented by a substantial set of variations (the Partita) and a short Toccata, neither of which challenge his reputation for worthy but pedestrian counterpoint. The two Chorale Preludes and Ciacona by Buxtehude are stylistically and technically the closest any of these predecessors come to the music of Bach himself. Programmed as they are immediately before the Bach finale emphasises the artistic affinity.
The lesser-known composers all punch above their weight. No concession need be made to Bruhns, Kerll or Froberger for the 17
th century provenance of their work in terms of sophistication. But for me the highlight of the disc is the Fugue in G minor by Reincken. At only five minutes and having no pedal part it is a slight work by the standards of this programme. That said, its sprightly fugal subject, occasionally resting on repeated semiquavers before springing off again, and the lightness of its elaboration give the music a vitality worthy of Bach at his greatest.
Some eyebrows might be raised at the prospect of organ music of the German Baroque being recorded in Paris. However, the credentials of the organ of St Louis-en-L’Île for this repertoire are impeccable. The instrument is by Bernard Aubertin and was completed in 2005. The commission specified an instrument suitable for the music of Bach. Aubertin based the instrument on designs by Zacharias Hildebrandt (1688-1757), a maker whose work Bach himself apparently endorsed. Its sound on this recording is clean, focused and balanced, and without a peep from the mechanical tracker action.
Margaret Phillips performs with precision and flair, and is sensitive to the details of stylistic variety in the programme. There is apparently a pedagogical aspect to this recording; it is produced in association with the English Organ School, an organisation that Phillips runs with her husband David Hunt. The booklet includes the full specification of the instrument, but also lists the registrations used throughout. This is a nice touch, and perhaps aimed at aspiring organists who wish to use the recording as a model for their own performances. They would be well advised to do so.
Prelude and Fugue in E major, BWV 566by Johann Sebastian Bach Performer:
Margaret Margaret Phillips (Organ)
Period: Baroque Written: by 1708; Mühlhausen, Germany Venue: St. Louis-en-L'Ile, Paris Length: 10 Minutes 33 Secs.
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