Notes and Editorial Reviews
BACH Complete Organ Works, Vol. 5 • Margaret Phillips (org) • REGENT 301 (2 CDs: 155:52)
CD 1: Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 565; Toccata and Fugue in d, BWV 538, “Dorian”; Prelude and Fugue in g, BWV 535; Trio Sonata No. 2 in c, BWV 526; Partite diverse sopra Christ, der du bist der helle Tag, BWV 766; Concerto in G (after Ernst), BWV 592; Pedal-Exercitium, BWV 598; 6 Chorale Preludes: BWV 721; 730; 731; 743; 754; 757
CD 2: Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in c, BWV 564; Prelude and fugue in C, BWV 545; Fugue in g, BWV 131a; Trio Sonata No. 5 in C, BWV 529; Partite diverse sopra Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen, BWV 770; 7 Chorale Preludes: BWV 725; 728; 734; 741; 745; 755; 763
"It was a
pleasant surprise to receive [this] album for review. I had never heard of British organist Margaret Phillips, nor was I aware of her ongoing series of the complete organ works of Bach on the Regent label, performed on an assortment of historic British and Continental organs. The liner notes list an impressive set of accomplishments for her, including the presidency of several professional organizations and a professorship at the Royal College of Music, London. I suppose it’s an indication of just how insular we are here in America, even in the age of the Internet: Until a recording such as this arrives at our doorstep, we often have no inkling of the diverse musical activities that take place overseas. The most intriguing part of her many enterprises is something called the English Organ School and Museum, maintained by Phillips and her husband, David Hunt, in a “disused chapel” in Somerset, where they have assembled a number of English organs ranging from the 18th century to the present. The aim is to preserve “a modest part of Britain’s organ heritage” and provide facilities for learning and playing the organ.
The first Bach CD was recorded on the 56-stop organ in the church of St. Nicolaas (the Bowenkerk, or “upper church”) in Kampen, Netherlands. As with many historic organs, it has a long and complicated history, beginning with the original 1743 built by Albertus Hinsz, a pupil of Arp Schnitger, and continuing through to the 20th century, when the organ was completely restored by Bakker & Timmenga in 1975. This took the instrument back to the specifications of 1790, when Frans Caspar Schnitger added a fourth manual and independent pedal. With its well-rounded, non-screechy mixtures and imposing pedal, the organ produces a satisfyingly grand sound. But it’s also a bit lacking in subtlety, which makes it better suited, perhaps, to the larger-scale works such as BWV 538. There have been relatively few recordings in recent years; the one that stands out in my mind is the fine Bach program that Daniel Chorzempa recorded for Philips in the mid 80s.
Margaret Phillips is a resourceful musician who combines intelligent phrasing, digital accuracy, and well-chosen tempos in an ideal mix. At first, I thought her tempo in the opening toccata of BWV 538 too slow compared with Kevin Bowyer’s thrilling rendition on Nimbus, but ultimately Phillips’s performance gets to the heart of Bach’s architecture better that Bowyer’s. She starts off the fugue with a nearly full registration of diapasons and mixtures; I would have preferred that she build into this, rather than hitting us all at once with full organ. The overly recorded BWV 565 gets a stylish treatment—if you’re going to do the complete organ works of Bach, it has to turn up eventually. Thanks to Phillips’s restrained yet imaginative handling of the improvisatory passages, this is a performance that should find favor with the most jaded of listeners.
For me, the outstanding work on CD 1 is BWV 766; this is written in a kind of theme and variations format that Bach was very fond of, the theme being a standard Lutheran hymn tune. The trio sonata, one of six, was written as study material for the young Friedemann Bach. Organists have a love/hate relationship with the trio sonatas: They are filled with magnificent music but are devilishly hard to play, more challenging in fact than many of Bach’s large-scale organ works. Phillips does very well with the piece; about all I could wish for is a slightly faster tempo in the first movement. The concerto gets in a sprightly rendition, while the remaining chorale preludes, mostly contemplative in nature, are played with care and reverence.
The second CD was recorded on another famous historic organ, this being the Arp Schnitger organ of 1696 (enlarged by Hinsz in 1768) in the Hervormde Kerk, Noordbrock, Netherlands. At 25 stops, it’s much smaller than the Kampen but doesn’t lack for impact, and in its present state amounts to a remarkably well-balanced instrument. One might think that the famous Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue, BWV 564, would be better served on a larger instrument, but in fact the piece comes off quite well, thanks in part to Phillips’s brilliant pedal work. It’s a rarity to hear those famous pedal passages actually
in musical fashion—most organists are lucky to get through them without dropping a note or two. About all that is lacking in this performance is the last iota of pedal impact that only a bigger organ can provide—the low Cs don’t thunder enough for my taste. The Partite, BWV 770, like its counterpart on CD 1, is another outstanding work in the form, full of Bach’s inventiveness in handling the chorale tune. Phillips varies the registration nicely through the nine variations, giving us the opportunity to hear the organ’s colorful solo stops. The trio sonata and the other smaller pieces benefit from Phillips’s skillful finger- and footwork, as does the mighty Prelude and Fugue, BWV 545, which closes the program.
In both venues, the organs are presented in a natural aural perspective that judiciously combines first-arrival sound with ambient acoustic. The recording engineer has succeeded in capturing many of the rattling low pedal notes of the Kampen organ—the low Ds in BWV 565 for example—a hit-or-miss proposition even in the best of organ recordings. A much-appreciated feature of the liner notes is the complete listing of the registrations used for each piece, keyed to the stoplist of the two organs. Measure numbers are given at every change of registration, even within movements, so it’s possible to follow along if you have a score. Such a seemingly minor item—if only more organists would include this in their offerings! Overall, a quite impressive Volume 5—I can hardly wait to hear which historic organs have been chosen for Volume 6 and beyond."
FANFARE: Christopher Brodersen
Works on This Recording
Be the first to review this title