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Johann Sebastian BACH (1675-1750)
Organ Music - Volume 3
Leipzig Chorales, BWV 651-668 (1740-48)
Schübler Chorales, BWV 645-650 (1746-50)
Canonic Variation on Von Himmel hoch, BWV 769 (1747)
James Johnstone (organ)
rec. 28 September-2 October, 2017, on the 1737 Christoph Treutmann German Baroque organ, Stiftskirche St. Georg, Grauhof, Germany
METRONOME METCD1096 [2 CDs: 127:46]

Following on from his excellent Clavierübung III (reviewed by Marc Rochester in July 2016), James Johnstone offers his third volume of Bach works, a neat packaging of the Leipzig and Schübler Chorales alongside the Canonic Variations.

This is part of a series of recordings matching Bach’s works to organs of their time, here the idyllic setting of the Stiftskirche St. Georg in Grauhof, Germany. The set comes along at a time when David Goode has released a complete organ works on Signum performed on the organ of Trinity College Chapel, Cambridge, and it is that which provides the major point of comparison here.

Johnstone‘s set begins with the almighty Komm, heiliger Geist, BWV 651, the Christoph Treutmann organ resplendent, the recording capturing the imposing pedals perfectly while the florid passagework continues unstoppably above. Johnstone’s rhythmically solid, harmonic sequences therefore take on a cumulative effect. Goode is no less impressive, but his take is a little lighter. The next chorale takes the same melody but here, regularity rather than freedom is the order of the day, with only the ending finding the liberty it has so far eschewed. Goode takes 9:17 against Johnstone’s 8:37. I have to say here I prefer Johnstone, who seems to convey the unhurried unfolding of the complex processes.

Johnstone’s Am Wasserflut Babylon feels heavy, like a lament (as it should), its close absolutely beautiful. Goode is rather restrained in comparison (Goode’s set includes two settings of An Wasserflut Babylon, though, BWV 563 and BWV 563q, the powerfully beautiful second of which includes s double pedal).

Schmücke dich O Liebe Seele BWV654, a piece much praised by Mendelssohn, finds two different takes on the same piece, Johnstone serene, while Goode displays more awareness of an ongoing tramping rhythm. The two complement each other well. The Trio Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV 655 is gloriously light with Johnstone; Goode is arguably more silvery in his choice of stops.

O Lamm Gottes BWV 656 sounds very progressive in Johnstone’s hands. There is no missing the pedal entry, either; Goode is more meditative in approach, but in the Pachelbel-influenced Nun danket alle Gott, BWV 657, Goode projects the underlying emotions more truly.

The first chorale in the minor mode, the Advent chorale Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV658 finds Johnstone’s performance highlighting Bach’s adventurous writing, particularly the interesting pedal work at the end, where one almost experiences a pulsing. It is a matter of swings and roundabouts here, as Goode also finds a real sense of novelty, although perhaps the ending is less convincing.

Influenced by Schneidermann and Buxtehude (BuxWV211), the chorale BWV 659 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland finds Goode just that bit more convincing when it comes to the harmonic sequence (he is, though, freer with the upper voices towards the end, which might affect some listeners’ choices). It is said of the Trio super Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, that some of the writing represents Christ’s suffering at Golgotha and one can hear parallels with the oboe work in the counter-tenor aria ‘on den Stricken meiner Sünden’ from the St John Passion (where two oboes intertwine to represent the binding of Christ on the Cross). It is a fascinating piece; one can hear the detail better in Goode’s performance (listen to the new Suzuki St John Passion on BIS to really hear the pain in those oboes).

The third setting of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 661 finds Johnstone describing this piece as ‘terrifying’ in his notes, something I was unsure of until the pedals came in, but they appear to shake the heavens - and yet are still defined in this recording. The busyness of the manuals is remarkable (the pedals have the chorale).  Johnstone’s performance is magnificent; Goode seems a little careful at the opening, and there's less wonder at the counterpoint, less miraculous fluency. Goode's pedals are a little more restrained, too. As a dramatic event, Johnstone caps it, but for a magnificent laying out of Bach’s writing, it’s Goode.

Johnstone’s second disc begins with the extended Allein gott in der hoh BWV 662 (the text is the “German Gloria”). Restrained and florid, it carries more of a sense of anguished yearning played by Goode. In the second of three Allein Gott in der hoh, BWV 663, Johnstone exudes floridity, and the stop he uses for the cantus firmus is nicely and nasally contrastive. Goode’s description of this as a corrente is perfectly apt; his staccato is lovely and light. Goode’s stop for the cantus firmus is less immediately arresting, but still contrastive. He also has more of a sense of joy than Johnstone, perhaps due to a slightly elevated harmonic awareness. BWV 664, the third of the settings of Allein Gott is unstoppable – Johnstone is terrific here - positively celebrational in fact. Goode is jollier, and I like his textures more. If Johnstone is a celebration of God, Goode has a more human spring in his step.

The chorales catalogued as BWV 665 & 666 are both settings of Jesus Christ, unser Heiland. Johnstone’s account of BWV 665 is massively involving; lines seem to crash against each other in a way Goode cannot match and I prefer Johnstone’s awareness of the progressive rhythmic shortenings of BWV 666, too. The Pentecostal hymn Komm Gott Schöpfer, BWV 667 is grand and imposing (a rewrite of the same chorale in the Orgelbüchkein: BWV 63). Here, Goode is almost Handelian in his sense of pomp. There is a bit of a parting of the ways with the spurious BWV 668, with Johnstone playing BWV 668 and Goode BWV 668a.

The Sechs Choräle von verschiedener Art, BWV 645-50, are better known as the Schübler Chorales. The first, BWV 645 is a transcription of Wachet auf from the Cantata 140. Johnstone is fine if a bit clumsy at times; Goode has a lovely set of stops and great tempo but I remain unsure about his hesitations between phrases. BWV 646, Wo soll ich fliehen hin/Auf meinen lieben Gott finds Goode miraculously even; in comparison, Johnstone sounds relentless. The C minor BWV 647 (Wer nun den lieben Gott läßt salten) finds Johnstone presenting a memorable meditation on beauty, but in the case of BWV 648, Meine Seele erhebt den Herren it is Goode who is mysterious in extremis; Johnstone is far more reserved (and slower) although I remain usure whether he is more mysterious. Goode’s sense of exploration of textures is similarly impressive in BWV 649, Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ.

Both are excellent in the final piece of the set but here Johnstone has the extra measure of fluency. The Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel Hoch da komm ich her’ BWV 739 finds Bach penning a sequence of canons on his chosen chorale, using all possible intervals for the canons except the fourth. With Goode, I get a sense of delight in the canonic play but Johnstone is more convincing overall, presenting the sense of exploration inherent in Bach’s writing perfectly.

Unless one is actually buying the sets for a particular chorale, the only real solution is to own both (the Goode is unsurprisingly far more expensive, but you do get all of the organ works). As a grouping of Leipzig and Schübler Chorales in one place, though, Johnstone is hard to beat.

Colin Clarke

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