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Early Music

Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger


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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Clavierübung III [123.16]
CD 1 [63.14]
Praeludium pro Organo Pleno BWV 552/1
Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit BWV 669
Christe, aller Welt Trost BWV 670
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist BWV 671

Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit alio modo BWV 672
Christe, aller Welt Trost BWV 673
Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist BWV 674
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 675
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 676

Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 677
Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot BWV 678

Fughetta super Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot BWV 679
Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 680

Fughetta super Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 681
Vater unser im Himmelreich BWV 682

Vater unser im Himmelreich alio modo BWV 683
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam BWV 684

Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam alio modo BWV 685
CD 2 [60.02]
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir BWV 686

Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir alio modo BWV 687
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 688

Fuga super Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 689
Duetto I BWV 802
Duetto II BWV 803
Duetto III BWV 804
Duetto IV BWV 805
Fuga a 5 con pedale pro Organo Pleno BWV552/2
Partita diverse sopra Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig BWV 768 [20.28]
David Ponsford at the organ of the Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh (Peter Collins, 1990)
rec 13-15 February 2001, Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, Scotland
GUILD GMCD 7262/3 [123.16]


The monumental organ works of J S Bach are well known, both from their live popularity in concert and from almost innumerable recordings. However, it is a major listening undertaking to hear the works recorded here, in their intended format. The Clavierübung was Bach’s most monumental undertaking in keyboard music. It is a publication in four parts, of which the first and second consisted of the Six Partitas for harpsichord in part one and the Italian Concerto and French Overture in part two. Part four is The Goldberg Variations, and part three, recorded here, is a linked set of organ pieces based on the fundamental components of the Lutheran liturgy. Although these works were intended for use as individual pieces during a religious service, Bach organised the complete collection along the most stringent architectural, mathematical and liturgical lines. Although most of the works are based on Chorale melodies, Bach uses particular melodies to link to the sections of the Lutheran Mass. This consisted only of the Kyrie and Gloria of the Roman rite. In the Kyrie, Bach uses the same three chorales twice, the first set being for organ with pedals (and probably intended for the principal Sunday morning Hauptgottesdienst,) while the second set is for manuals only and was probably composed for use at the Sunday evening Vespergottesdienst. Following from this Bach includes settings for the Gloria, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Penitence and the Communion, each based on appropriate chorales. As with the Kyries there is in each case a pair of works, one with pedals, one without. Luther’s four teaching precepts are represented by four duets, some of the strictest two part counterpoint Bach ever composed and indicative of the teacher/pupil relationship inherent in the idea of the Catechism. The manuals only version of the Creed setting Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 681 is in the form of a French overture and comes at the halfway point of the collection. A similar use of a French overture at this point occurs in all the other parts of the Clavierübung.

Additionally the entire structure is imbued with Trinitarian references. There are 27 pieces (3x3x3). There are 9 chorale preludes (3x3). The Gloria is set three times in trio textures, spread over the keys of F, G and A, which outline the interval of a third. Additionally the magnificent prelude that opens the collection is in E flat (key signature of 3 flats) and is constructed on three themes. It is almost incomprehensible how this rigour of structure can be possible in music that, at all times, appears of the most fluid beauty and spontaneity.

Strangely, although this is music that repays the most intense study and careful listening, at the same time it is surprisingly easy to enjoy, and even (heaven forbid!) appreciate in the background. Needless to say, there have been many recordings of this great collection. In this new release from Guild both organist and instrument are of UK origin, but both are steeped in the traditions of the German organ school. To make sense of this music it is essential to play it on the right sort of instrument. Of course the big fugues will work on any organ, but the underlying meaning of the structure is greatly helped by the use of an instrument built on the same constructional lines as those for which Bach was writing. The Peter Collins organ of 1990 in the Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh is, in this respect, one of the most suitable in the UK. It is built strictly along the lines of the classical Werkprinzip-System, in which the instrument is divided into distinct sections in independent cases, the Pedal, Great and Positive divisions (equating to the German Pedal, Hauptwerk and Bovenwerk) being based on classical choruses of 16, 8 and 4 foot pitches respectively. There is additionally a Swell division equating to the German Brustwerk and enclosed in a case with shutters. Thus the contrasting natures of chorale melody, accompaniment and harmonic basis can be clearly distinguished in the interpretation. This format treats the organ much more like an orchestra, with its separate string, wind and brass sections, than like a single giant beast, as became the fashion in 19th century organs, especially by the great English builders of that time.

David Ponsford has performed this repertoire for many years and is clearly at home in this musical language. To some extent, the material is so great that the interpreter can have only a limited effect on the aural perception of the music, but generally Ponsford manages to put some stamp of interpretative individuality into most tracks. This is most noticeable in the area of registration, where again the quality of the organ is a great help. Works such as the Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 677 show off the delightfully clear 4 foot flute ranks while the Fughetta super Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot BWV 679 demonstrates the 8 foot flutes to equal effect. There is a delightful chiff to the speaking of these stops and the capture of the organ sound is excellent. Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam BWV 684 brings out some fine fluidity of playing in the elaborate accompaniments on the manuals, while the chorale in the pedal is played on a well judged and balanced 8 foot trumpet that manages to avoid dominating the filigree in the manuals. Again the recorded sound is excellent, even to the clarity of the lower-pitched runs of the left hand, which can so easily become muddy. The French overture of Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 681 makes effective use of the Swell’s Cornet and five-rank Plein Jeu to give a sound reminiscent of the organ music of De Grigny or Couperin. This is a slightly unusual registration feature for a basically German organ, but no doubt these stops, together with the 32-foot pedal ranks (that Ponsford wisely avoids using on this recording) increase the range of repertoire that this organ is capable of performing convincingly.

It must be admitted that some of the longer chorale settings tend towards the monotonous at times. Occasionally it would be nice to hear Ponsford be more daring in his variety of articulations. Similarly some of the phrasing could be said to be rather predictable in places. However, that is the interpreter’s prerogative, and it cannot be denied that the overall approach to this recording is scholarly and thoughtful. Invariably the highpoint of any disc of Bach’s music for organ comes in the great Organo Pleno works, and this is no less true here. Most impressive performance is the first setting of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 686) that opens the second disc. Here Ponsford chooses a deliberately slow tempo, but as the chorale melody is largely in the pedal he employs the majestic 16-foot Trombone to great effect. It is sobering to think how this music must have sounded in a world where about the loudest noise regularly heard would have been a horse and cart on cobblestones or the hammering from a blacksmith’s forge. This grand music bursting forth from a huge, carved and gilded instrument high up the west wall of the town church must have seemed almost literally to be the very voice of God. This same sense of spacious grandeur is evident in the collection’s most famous work; the Prelude and Fugue in E flat BWV 552. The prelude is magnificent, but it is in the fugue that ends the collection that Bach is at his finest. Here a large organ really does help and the full pleno of the Greyfriars instrument is nothing less than majestic. It is in these large compositions on a broad canvas that David Ponsford also reaches his peaks. The fluent virtuosity apparent in the E flat fugue is most impressive. The smaller scale works seem to present him with greater interpretative difficulties and tend to result in a slightly detached air. The sense of attachment in the big works is much greater and highly enjoyable.

The presentation of this recording is let down rather by some very indifferent cover artwork and less-than-high-quality printing on booklet cover and cd case back. The booklet itself gives good background notes and work listings but would have benefited from more information about the organ, although a specification does appear.

Peter Wells


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