More about organs than you wanted to know

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

Kenneth Gilbert plays the historical Robert Dallam organ (1653), Lanvellec, France ADDA 581178 (1989)

To the best of my knowledge, this is the oldest surviving English Renaissance organ, restored to original playing condition by Fromentelli in 1985-6. Why an English organ in France? Because it was built by Robert Dallam, son of Thomas Dallam, who built organs for King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, Eton and Worcester and Wells cathedrals. During Cromwell’s Puritan revolution, with its vandalism of many church organs, Robert Dallam took refuge in France, where he and his sons continued to build organs. The Lanvellec instrument is a dead ringer for his father’s original organ at King’s.

Located in a suitably resonant acoustic, this organ is about as close as we can get to the tonal world of Tallis, Dr John Bull and William Byrd, all of whom are featured in Gilbert’s stylish readings. Bull’s Salve Regina and In Nomine (Gloria tibi Trinitas) are solemnly moving, probably written for Brussels or Antwerp in the Spanish Netherlands (now Belgium). Works by Tallis, Thomas Preston, Thomas Tomkins, Orlando Gibbons, Matthew Locke, John Blow and Henry Purcell complete the program.

The Bader-Timpe-Riel organ (1639-43) at St Wallburgiskerk, Zutphen, Holland

Here we leave the Praetorian tonal world of chamber consort-style organs. No longer the simple pennywhistle Blockwerk of flue pipes (generally cast from lead), plus a few flutes and reeds in imitation of the Renaissance town band. Now comes the Baroque monumentality suitable for leading and supporting congregational singing, a relatively new phenomenon at the time. The new, Hamburger-style instruments combined three or four organs of complete choruses, especially reed choruses that could fill almost the entire audible spectrum. This organ is the earliest example I know of, restored by Riel in 1996. Even though it’s ideal for the works of Reincken, Scheidemann, Scheidt (no, not a miss-spelling), the two CDs on offer so far contain works by J.S. Bach. Hopefully more will surface from earlier composers.

Bach: Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit. Dritter Teil der Clavier-Übung, Great Organ Mass Leo van Doeselaar, organ. Choir of the Netherlands Bach Society, Jos van Veldhoven, conductor Channel Classics CCS 13498 (1998)

Earlier in La Folia I raved about the recording quality, choral and organ performance and the organ itself — not to mention the ideal reverberant acoustic. This CD release is one of the highlights of my half-century of collecting recordings! (By the by: this release does NOT reverse absolute polarity, unlike most CDs from the majors.) You can distinguish individual voices in the a cappella chorales. And then there’s a feast of chorale vocal settings by the likes of Schütz, Michael Praetorius, Schein, Scheidt and Hans Leo Hassler. Many of these settings may have been familiar to Herr Bach. And for once the organ and chorus were recorded in the same space — not always the case these days. Van Doeselaar’s interpretations are uniformly sensitive and lively. Moreover a sense of genuine joy in the music and in performing it comes across. If there’s only one Christmas gift you can give to yourself and to your stereo this year, this is definitely to consider!

BACH: Organ Works, Vol. 10 Ton Koopman, Hans Heinrich Bader organ, built 1639-43; St Wallburgiskerk, Zuthpen Teldec 3984-24818-2 (1998)

Koopman bounces and romps through Kirnberger chorales and other chorale arrangements — apparently early works that Bach thought had grown out of fashion for contemporary organ students. He never revised or published any of them but didn’t throw them away, either. Some sound like the jazzy arrangements that got the young Bach in trouble with the authorities. But all are good Bach and definitely worth hearing, unlike some of the pietistic cantata arias that bore me beyond tears. And the Bader organ is a delight, even if Adriaan Verstijnen’s recording doesn’t have the warmth or presence of Channel Classics. It matches the rest of the recordings in this series. But the Channel Classics discs now show us what’s possible in the excellence department.

The Arp Schnitger organ (1695-96) in the Hervormde Kerk, Noordbroek, Holland

Here’s another seventeenth-century treasure, virtually un-retouched. The organ loft is perilous. The keyboards are yellowed. And the touch is often uneven. The corroded tin front pipes were carefully replaced by lead ones with a design typical of the early seventeenth century by Hermann Heinrich Freytag in 1806-9. Those in charge of the Noordbroek organ certainly didn’t believe in fixing what ain’t broke, and made do with what they had. To either poverty or tight-fistedness or both we are in debt for this instrument’s preservation.

Gustav Leonhardt Edition: Keyboard Music Teldec 3984-21769-2 (recorded, 1967; pub. 1998)

Johann Adam Reincken (1623-1722). A pupil of Heinrich Scheidemann, Reincken became Scheidemann’s assistant at the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg in 1658 and his successor in 1663. He presided over the four-manual Fritzsche organ, with its 32-foot pedal pipes until just five months shy of his 100th birthday! Besides being one of the founders of the Hamburg Opera and composer of instrumental suites, Reincken was a legendary improviser. For years I’ve wondered just what Reinken’s organ music actually sounded like. Now Teldec’s collection of Leonhardt’s solo keyboard recordings starts off with Reincken’s chorale fantasy on An der Wasserflüssen Babylon. The piece reminds me of the style of Scheidemann (his predecessor), with echoes of Sweelinck (Scheidemann’s teacher). It’s not far afield from the fantasias of Weckmann at the neighboring Jakobikirche. Speaking of which, I’d love to hear this work performed on the larger Jakobikirche organ, now that it’s properly restored. Still, Leonhardt performs this work with spirit and appropriate taste. Better this than no Reincken at all.

Reincken: Hortus musicus & Works for Harpsichord The Purcell Quartet Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0664 (1999)

I justify this detour from Noordbroek because this complete CD of Reincken’s music has just arrived after a virtual dearth of anything by this composer. The Hortus musicus dates from 1687, and its suites are similar in style to those of Buxtehude and Rosenmüller. The Toccata for harpsichord is in the stylus phantasticus manner familiar from similar works by Weckmann, Bruhns and Buxtehude. Robert Wooley seems a tad timid about really cutting loose with brio on the improvisatory flourishes. He’s suitably quick and lively in the fugetta sections, though. Both the compositions and performances make jolly pleasant entertainment, which is probably all that was ever intended.

Bach: 18 Chorale Preludes, Six Schübler ChoralesMartin Souter, 1696 Schnitger Organ, Noordbroek, Holland Isis CD007,8 (1993)

Returning to Noordbroek, we hear one of the most idiomatic, thoughtful readings of both The 18 and the Schübler I’ve yet to hear on CD, simply recorded with two mics and probably one portable DAT machine. Souter states he was inspired by the organ itself and its reverential surroundings. The works represent the mature Bach : pious, profound and skilled.

Dietrich Buxtehude: (1637-1707) Orgelwerke Vol. 4 (Harald Vogel) Schnitger organ, Noordbroek, Holland Dabringhaus und Grimm MD+G L 3424 (1990)

Here’s how Reincken’s buddy Buxtehude sounds on the Schnitger in Noordbroek: quite impressive, thank you! Vogel’s registrations have the right amount of gravitas when called for. But he’s careful to emphasize the consort, chamber stops by way of contrast. Vogel doesn’t relentlessly plod through heavy pudding as some other nameless organists do. Also, Vogel is not afraid of moderate tempi. He can certainly let his fingers fly when needed, but doesn’t feel compelled to race the clock just to prove that he can. Everything he plays has a musical, singing quality I find profoundly satisfying.

Stop me before I write more about organs …

The Karl Joseph Riepp organs (1766) at the Basilica St Alexander and Theodore, Ottobeuren, Germany

These treasures have remained unmolested and intelligently maintained to this day in this spectacular, wedding-cake abbey. Nor only did Riepp spare no expense, he also took his own sweet time to get everything right, even if it meant missing his original delivery date by a couple years! Such is the power of an independently wealthy (from a flourishing wine business) builder. He also combined the German, Silbermann tonal style with the Dom Bedos French designs, to make organs suitable for both Deutsche und Französiche Komponisten. Riepp put both organs above the choir stalls on either side where they sing out unobstructed in the reverberance of the chapel.

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge / The Art of the fugue, Fassung des Autographs / Autograph VersionThomasorganist Ullrich Böhme, Historische Riepp-Orgeln der Klosdterbasilika Ottobeuren Motette CD 12611 (2000)

The booklet starts with a funky photo of Albert Schweitzer at the Dreifaltigskeits-Orgel spieltisch (console of the Holy Trinity organ, for us gringos). Schweitzer sports black hair and moustache. So the snapshot must date back at least to the 1930s, if not before. That’s when he made recordings in Strasbourg and London to raise money for his missionary hospital in French Equatorial Africa. In 1935, he recorded Bach on the organ of All Hallows Church, Barking (Bercingecirce juxta turrim). Nazi bombers later demolished both the church and its organ. The church was rebuilt and a fundraising drive commenced for a new organ. Queen Mary (the 101-year-old Queen Mother now) graciously lent her name to this project, to be called “Queen Mary’s Organ.” I couldn’t make this up. You can audition the Prof. Dr’s organ skills on Pearl GEMM CD 9959 (1992) and EMI 0777 7 64703 2 (1993). I’m not at all sure the EMI version is still available. We may snicker at the Brits, but right now in Dallas at the Meyerson Concert Hall is the Lay Family Organ, generously donated by the potato chip folks. Now back to Ottobeuren and the original version of Die Kunst …

We usually associate Die Kunst with its printed edition of 1751 with its incomplete Contrapunctus 14. There is, however, an earlier version in Bach’s own hand: 12 fugues and two canons! This is the version Böhme has recorded at Ottobeuren. The combination of Bach’s score, Böhme’s playing and the Riepp organs (with Martina Böhme lending an obligatory third hand in Contrpuncti 13 and 14) gives unalloyed pleasure on all counts. Even the recording is quite adequate! You Art of the fugue lovers out there shouldn’t miss this one!

BACH: Organ Works, vol. 8, Orgel-Büchlein (Little Organ Book) Ton Koopman, Dreifaltigskeitorgel, Basilika St Alexander und Theodor, Ottobeuren Teldec 3984-21466-2 (1998)

This famous collection shows Bach finding more ways to skin a chorale than you ever thought possible. It was probably intended as teaching material for budding orgelspieler, and perhaps for their use in retaining their posts, too. You’ll find all your favorites here, painted in glorious tones on the Riepp organs.

BACH: Organ Works, Vol. 9. Ton Koopman, Dreifaltigskeitorgel and Heilig-Geist-Orgel, Ottobeuren Teldec 3984-24829-2 (l008)

All the glory here is in the Ottobeuren organs. Koopman’s playing is fine, but the pieces are either chorale fantasies or chorale preludes with all the signs of very early Bach. This is the kind of music he would have heard as a student in Lüneberg at Saturday Vespers, played by Georg Böhm or by Reincken in neighboring Hamburg. The pedal trumpets sounding out the chorale themes should have got the Lutherans off their butts! The reed choruses approach French auto horns, but not quite. There’s a rounding off that makes for a more Teutonic blend. The mixtures are sheer shimmer. Even though there are no 32’ pedal pipes, there’s still plenty of power in the bass. As I say: well worth getting just for the sheer sonic splendor of the Riepp organs.

The Cliquot Organ (1781) / Cavaillé-Coll (1862) at the Church of St-Sulpice, Paris

The renowned Henri Clicquot built the original organ in the French Baroque style in 1781. Finishing up in 1862, Aristide Cavaillé-Coll added Romantic, symphonic stops, an expressive swell box and an impressive five-manual console with Barker lever, a pneumatic assist that makes it possible to couple more than one mechanical-action keyboard to another without making it too stiff to depress. The whole beast operated without benefit of electricity. Cavaillé-Coll made probably the first fusion of the classic Baroque and nineteenth-century Romantic organ, as well as the largest organ in Europe at that time. Old Aristide had a protégé in the young Charles-Marie Widor. He encouraged Widor to study in Brussels with Lemmens. Lemmens teacher’s teacher was a pupil of none other than J.S. Bach himself. Caesar Franck also studied with Lemmens. Cavaillé-Coll also pulled some strings in 1870 to get Widor appointed titulaire at the St Sulpice console, even though Franck had also applied for the post. Widor continued on at St Sulpice till 1932, all the while allowing not the slightest alteration to the instrument except for an electric blower to replace the hand pumpers in the 1920s. Marcel Dupré succeeded Widor and continued the same policy. From 1988-91 Jean Renaud cleaned and re-regulated the action. So here we have a “link between old and new art.” I’m surprised more recordings haven’t been made on this organ, but I do own a couple.

GREAT TOCCATAS. Marie-Claire Alain, Orgue Clicquot (1781) / Cavaillé-Coll (1862) de l’eglise St-Sulpice, Paris ERATO 4509-94812-2 (1993)

Now you tell me: why does Erato feature a color photo of the St Bavo organ in Haarlem on the booklet cover? It’s certainly an impressive Baroque case, but has nothing to do with Bach or St Sulpice! And why is there nothing at all about the organ in the booklet? Well, that’s not the only lack in this CD. In spite of flamboyant showpieces by Bach (the D-minor Toccata & Fugue), Widor’s finger-busting Toccata from his Organ Symphony No.5, through works by Gigout, Boëllmann, Guilmant, Vierne, her father, Albert Alain, and her brother, Jehan Alain, Marie-Claire manages to exemplify what I call the maiden-auntie school of organ playing. Somehow she manages to cold-press out every last drop of drama, melodrama or musical excitement, leaving each and every reading technically correct and bland as dishwater. What’s more, Ms Alain has scads of students, including rich Americans sitting at her feet, hopefully not absorbing her ideas about musical interpretation. If she were a pianist or violinist, I doubt she would ever be heard outside conservatory faculty recitals. And I know she’s not just being mic-shy for recording. I heard her live at Alice Tully’s Hall some years back in their long defunct organ series. And recording on the freshly-cleaned St Sulpice organ, with its high-pressure pedal reeds capable of inducing incontinence, it takes real determination to de-dramatize both the instrument and the music! O.K., despite the performances, the largest Cavaillé-Coll organ ever built deserves to be heard. By the by, this sort of uninflected, unornamented organ style was exemplified by the late E(dgar) Power Biggs in his many broadcasts and recordings — an antidote to the Bach-Stokowski style of rubato-inflected playing favored by Virgil Fox and many others. The Chrystal Cathedral school of organistic orgasms. Even worse was a peculiarly British school of sentimentality that seemed to smother everything in thick, sweet syrup! An overdose of jellybeans.

Daniel Roth Spielt César Franck, Vols. 1-3 Motette CDs 11381, 11391, 11401 (1991)

Roth, the current titulaire at St Sulpice plays Franck compositions on other Cavaillé-Coll organs besides St Sulpice. In both the Final and Fantasie en la we get the full blast of the reed choruses with all the drama I found lacking in Alain’s readings. In the Trois Chorals Roth allows the chromatic threads of Franck’s writing to shift and unwind with spectral vagueness. Pity Roth didn’t get the chance to record the barn-burners on Alain’s CD.

LOFT RECORDINGS: a new label for organuts (pedalophiles?)

Joining the relatively esoteric Gothic Records in the U.S. and Priory Records in the U.K. comes another spate of organ CDs, this time from Seattle, Washington. There’s Good News and not so Good News. Good news first:

Music of a Father and Son: Organ Works of Delphin and Nicolaus Adam Strungk David Yearsly at the Arp Schnitger organ (1686-1692), Norden, Germany Loft Recordings LRCD 1010 (1999)

The Norden organ is the second-largest extant Schnitger instrument, lovingly and authentically restored by Ahrend and capable of the necessary spatial and volume changes needed for the echo effects called for in this music. The father, Delphin Strungk, lived from 1601-1694 (!) — all of it in Braunschweig. His “Toccata ad manuale duplex” is perhaps the longest piece in the North German repertory: 16 minutes and 19 seconds of echoes, out-echoing even Sweelinck! Yearsley does a lively and musical job on both Strungks. Alas, the 4 pieces by father Delphin are the sole survivors of his compositions.

Bach and the French Influence Kimberly Marshall, Fisk organ (1984), Stanford Memorial Church Loft Recordings LRCD 1024 (2000)

Bach and the Italian Influence Kimberly Marshall, Fisk organ (1984), Stanford Memorial Church Loft Recordings LRCD 1023 (1991)

In theory this is a great idea: play Bach organ works along side French influences such as de Grigny, Couperin and Marchand; Italian, Frescobaldi. In the listening, the foreign influences come off as pretty far-fetched; or Herr Bach’s Teutonic accent pretty well submerges the outlandish accents. What’s worse, Fisk’s instrument is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring. The French reeds are not near blatty enough. And the flue pipes have neither the mellowness of the Italian organs nor the delicate, airy shimmer of antique German organs — just hard, shrill modern imitations of Baroque originals. Also, the organ can be played either with mean tone or equal temperament, but nowhere in the booklet are we told which is which. Plus, the organ is set in a rather dry, dead acoustic with virtually none of the usual reverb of European churches. And, to cap it all off, Ms Marshall seems to slog her way with little phrasing or expression in such highly ornate and flamboyant music. Well … it seemed like a good idea at the time.

COMPLETE ORGAN WORKS OF NICOLAUS BRUHNS and JOHANN NICOLAUS HANFF William Porter, Cathedral organ (1554), Roskilde, Denmark Loft Recordings LRCD 1012 (1998)

For starters, all the other documentation (from Cornelius Edskes, the restoration designer) lists the restoration to the organ’s composition in 1654, not 1554. Bruhns was a brilliant young pupil of Buxtehude and the four compositions that have come down to us are in the flamboyant Stylus Phantasticus, which is the Latin for improvisatory manner.

Prof. Porter is any anything but flamboyant, complete with leaden tempi. Even the Hanff chorale preludes come out soggy. Too, bad, because the Roskilde organ is just about the perfect vintage and tonality that Bruhns would have used. And in a suitable resonant, brick gothic acoustic to boot. All in all, of the Loft CDs, I’d stick with the Strungks!

Historic Organs of France

Orgue Dom Bedos (1748), Sainte-Croix de Bordeaux

François Dom Bedos de Celles was a Benedictine monk and author of L’Art du facteur d’orgues, published 1766-1770. One organ constucted under his supervision in 1748 survives and has been designated a historical monument by the Ministry of Culture. Pascal Quoirin rebuilt the five-manual and pedal instrument between 1982 and 1996. Thankfully, the French authorities are taking care to preserve historic instruments as well as buildings, despite an overwhelming lack of interest by the church-going public. Apparently Vatican II’s encouragement of folkie guitars leading hymns in the local argot is not enough to turn the trick. Nevertheless, the cultural heritage of the French is being carefully preserved for German tourists. For generations the average Greek or Egyptian cared only for his antiquities as lures for visitors’ shekels. I have no information on the progress, if any, of the Evangelicals in France. The Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists are apparently going great guns in Latin America, as well as Russia.

Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge Kei Koito, Orgue Dom Bedos (1748), Sainte-Croix de Bordeaux Tempéraments (Radio France) TEM 316016 (1998)

Voilá! Here on the quintessential classic French organ, restored by French tax francs and recorded by the government’s own Radio France, do we get a French artist playing French music? Mais non! We have a young Japanese woman playing The Art of the fugue! And playing it rather well, too. Go figure. Some of the bass tuba reeds make rather heavy going at times, but Mlle Koito gives the Bedos instrument a good workout, displaying its many colors and registers. I’m sure genuinely French music is on its way.

DAQUIN: Douze Noëls Christopher Herrick, organ of St Rémy de Dieppe (1736-1739) Hyperion CDA66816 (1995)

Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772) was the grandson of the Chief Rabbi of Avignon, who converted to Christianity and wound up teaching Hebrew at the Sorbonne. Grandson Louis-Claude was one of the most famous keyboard virtuosiof his day, publishing his 12 Noëls around 1740. At Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, the famous Parisian organists outdid each other to improvise dramatic, colorful variations on the familiar folk carols. On this organ built by Claude Parizot between 1736 and 1739 and restored by Jean-François Dupont in 1992, Herrick shows off the various echo effects, soft flutes, snarly reeds and bright, but not shrill, principal pipes. Even though Herrick plays with liveliness and color, I somehow feel he wasn’t able to cut loose as he did on several of his Organ Fireworks CDs, also on Hyperion. Maybe he feels Daquin was more sober-sided than I do?

Organizing the Art of the Fugue

Can Die Kunst der Fuge be played on the organ? Absolutely. On four kazoos even. But before I discuss several organ CDs, let me take my machete to the underbrush of junk scholarship attached to this masterpiece. I am not going to pick every nit about the proper order of each piece or possible dating — that has nothing to do with the enjoyment of music.

A bit of context might help, however. For starters, these pieces were never called “The Art of the fugue” by Bach himself. This was the title added by the compiler or publisher, possibly as a memorial and to raise some ready cash for the widow, since the engraved plates were already nearly complete. As in my youth, there was no Social Security or Unemployment Insurance in 18th Century Germany.

The language of learning was still Latin. Art Music was written in open score, a technique that goes back at least as far as Frescobaldi at the beginning of the 17th Century. Music for the everyday use of parish organschleppers was encoded in organ tablature, derived from lute tablature. The note values were not written, but which key to push. Modern guitar chords are a descendant of this practice. So the correct title is Contrapunctus.

Moreover these pieces could never be used liturgically in a Lutheran church service. All organ compositions had to use a chorale theme or have a chorale melody as a cantus firmus. Well, who would make use of music like this? Teachers of composition and their students: to be played by the teacher and copied by the students. You could play them on one or two harpsichords, on a pedal harpsichord or an organ. Fingering (and toe-ing) was up to the player to figure out, but it was nice to have tippy toes to help out as a third hand.

Also, Bach was a member of the Mitzler Society, which required a yearly submission of a published scholarly work. So the Contrapuncti were possibly dusted off from the shelf and revised for this purpose. There still exists today an earlier Bach autograph with a smaller number of pieces. As far as we can determine, nobody was masochistic enough to write, much less publish, music just for the eyes. That seems to be a 20th Century late-Romantic affectation! Independently wealthy Romantics, at that. If you really want to read up on the scholarship, I recommend the doctoral thesis by Gustav Leonhardt: The Art of the fugue: Bach’s Last Harpsichord Work (originally written in English). Also look into Davitt Moroney’s summary in his booklet included with his Harmonia Mundi harpsichord recording (HMX 2908084.90). Now to some of the current organ CDs…

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge. Fassung des Autographs Thomasorganist Ullrich Böhme, Riepp-Orgeln der Klosterbasilika Ottobeuren MOTETTE CD 12661 (2000)

Herr Böhme and his wife Martina play the delightful pair of organs built by Riepp in 1766. The delicate treble pipes really shimmer in the reverb of the Rococo chapel. And the reeds have a touch of French bite to spice things up a bit. Because this is the original autograph version, there is no unfinished Contrapunctus 14. The interpretations are sprightly, cheerful, even if there are only two Canons in this manuscript. Riepp was a friend and possibly a student of the organ builder Gottfried Silbermann, who was associated with Bach. So, even though these organs were completed 16 years after the death of Bach, they still have the typical tonality of the organs of 18th Century Germany.

Bach: Die Kunst der Fuge Kei Koito, Orgue Dom Bedos (1748)/ P.Quoirin, Sainte-Croix de Bordeaux Tempéraments TEM 316016/17 (1998)

Here is the only surviving instrument designed and constructed by Dom Bedos, the great French organ writer and designer of the 18th Century. If you like your Bach with really blatty French reeds, this is the ideal dish. Ms Koito plays with lively musicality, and the recording quality is stunning.

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge Marie-Claire Alain, Kern organ (1975), Eglise Saint-Martin, Masevaux ERATO 4509-91946-2 (1992)

Although recent, this organ by Alfred Kern of Strasbourg reflects the tonal picture of 18th Century Germany and France combined — very similar to the Riepp organs at Ottobeuren. For some reason Mlle. Alain seems more lyrical and sprightly than usual, with long, singing lines that do justice to the contrapuntal contrasts. She plays with the kind of bounce you expect in the Duets of the Clavier-Übung. And her reed stop is more akin to a German Hoboe than the taxi horn type. Alas, she treats the last Fuga a tre Soggetti as a chorale, and a funeral dirge, at that! So does Wolfgang Rübsam on Naxos, which leads me to suspect that they’re reading from the same edition. Cliff Notes for Die Kunst der Fuge? Only Rübsam goes even slower! Makes you want to get out your Simon Legree whip and crack it over him to go “faster, faster.” (There are no tempo indications in the published score.)

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge Hans Fagius, organ of the Garnison Kirke, Copenhagen (Carsten Lund, 1995) BIS CD-1034 (1999)

Prof. Fagius gives almost as detailed account of the background of Die Kunst as Davitt Moroney. Fagius plays a pseudo-Schnitger organ in a rather dead acoustic. And the recorded perspective is mercilessly close-up. Fagius plods along with little phrasing or variation in tonal color. The performance is not bad — just lacking any form of involvement or excitement. Just the thing to induce snores. About the best I can say is that it takes up only one CD, not two.

BACH: L’ART DE LA FUGUE, BWV 1080 André ISOIR, Gerhard Grenzing organ (1982), Saint-Cyprien-en-Périgord CALLIOPE CAL 9719 (1999)

Isoir has been a leader in France for the advancement of authentic period performance practice and organ design. His playing is uniformly musical, witty and lively. Unfortunately Igor Kirkwood has recorded the decent-enough Périgord organ with the kind of opaque, steely sound we used to experience with early digital. You just can’t wait to turn it off. Pity. But it does consume only one CD…And the notes are crammed with intellectual French gush and hot air about the Cosmic Significance of the music

BACH: The Art of the fugue Wolfgang Rübsam, Flentrop organ at Duke University NAXOS 8.550703/4 (1992)

Even at a bargain price, and even with the Partita “Sei gegrüßet Jesu gütig” and an agonizingly slow Passacaglia in C minor thrown in at no extra charge, this it one performance to pass on, or over. The recorded quality is so-so; the Flentrop and its acoustic are excellent. The problem is with Herr Prof. Dr. Rübsam. Skillful though he is, there is a willful obtuseness at work here, which must be heard to be believed. Or just take my word for it and save your $13.96!

BACH: Die Kunst der Fuge Davitt Moroney, clavecin John Phillips (1980) Harmonia Mundi HMX 2908088 (1985)

On two CDs Moroney plays not only the complete Art but adds at the end his own completion of the unfinished Contrapunctus 14! And not a half-bad one at that. Suddenly you hear the ‘B.A.C.H.’ theme enter and then all four subjects twist together for a rousing climax. Both the performance and recorded quality are impeccable. Highly recommended.

BACH: Art of the Fugue. Mozart-Bach: Fugues, K. 405. Mozart: Fugue, K.401 Phantasm. Simax PSC 1135 (1997)

A quartet of viols playing Die Kunst? Why not? The different pitches and colors allow all the contrapuntal lines to sing out distinctly. And the viol timbre gives the music an appropriately antique-y flavor. Impeccable playing and recording, too. My one quibble: they omit the Canons and Mirror Fugues “because they do not seem to occupy the same artistic plane as the other works in the collection.” (Thanks for being a better judge than Bach himself or his sons!) The Mozart transcriptions are both good Mozart and good Bach — and always interesting, even if he specified gut violins, not viols.

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