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J S Bach
organ sonatas -
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'... an immensely satisfying conclusion.'

J S Bach Organ Sonatas BWV 525-530. Christopher Wrench. © 2009 Melba Recordings

Consistently impressed though I am with Melba Recordings' fine performances on disc, try as I might I found Christopher Wrench's account of these much recorded sonatas erring on the variable side.

I was brought up on, and reminded of, the uplifting performances of blind nonpareil German organist, Helmut Walcha (1907-1991). His renowned DGG recordings were on the Great Organ at the Laurenskerk, Alkmaar, Noord Holland; an instrument dating from 1638-1645: the years of its construction.

In 1929, Walcha took a post at the Friedenskirche in Frankfurt am Main and remained in Frankfurt for the rest of his life. In the years 1933-1938 he taught at the Hoch Conservatory and in 1938 became professor of organ at the Musikhochschule and in 1946 organist of the Dreikönigskirche. He retired from public performance in 1981.

Walcha recorded Bach's complete works twice, once in mono (1947-52), and again in stereo from 1956-71. This latter stereo cycle, released 10 September 2001, has been remastered, and repackaged in a medium-priced collector's edition twelve-CD box (DGG-Arkiv, 463712).

More spirited still is (another German) Kay Johannsen's strikingly poised performance on the Metzler Orgelbau AG Dietikon (established 1890) organ at the twelfth century Stadkirche Stein am Rhein -- (Schaffhausen), Switzerland (on Hänssler Classic CD 92.099).

Since 1994 Johannsen has been choirmaster and organist at the Stiftskirche (Stuttgart) where he founded Stuttgarter Kantorei and Ensemble 1994. Then, in 2003 he began the Solistenensemble stimmkunst.

Bach wrote these sonatas for a solo organist playing the melody parts on two manuals and the basso continuo with his feet on the pedals. His template was the Italian trio sonata with its two treble voices and bass continuo. The organist uses right hand, left hand, and pedal in equal measure.

Increasingly they turn up as ensemble works; typically for two violins, viola, cello and harpsichord / organ. This is the combination heard on BIS (2001) with the London Baroque Ensemble -- Ingrid Seifert, violin, Richard Gwilt, violin/viola, Charles Medlam, cello and Terence Charlston, harpsichord/organ. Here the transcriptions are by Richard Gwilt.

Another ensemble recording (for Virgin Classics 7243 5 45192 2 2) is as good, if not preferable, if only for its joie de vivre. It features Musica Pacifica: Judith Linsenberg, alto recorder and voice flute, Elizabeth Blumenstock, violin, Elisabeth Le Guin, cello and Edward Parmentier, harpsichord. Arrangements are by Judith Linsenberg and the 1992 Californian recording was released in 1996.

In September 1996 the American recording was named 'Disc of the Month' by Toccata-Alte Musik aktuell, Regensburg.

A fair number of Bach devotees swear by the 1960s trio sonatas recording (CBS/Sony) with E Power Biggs (1906-1977) playing a pedal harpsichord (ie a baroque harpsichord with an organ-type pedal-board). A detailed description of the German pedal harpsichord appeared in Jackob Adlung's book Anleitung zur musicalischen Gelahrteit published in Erfurt (1758). (NB: decidedly not for all tastes.)

German-born American organist Wolfgang Rubsam (born 1946) has two Naxos CDs with three of the sonatas on each and a filler with both.

Which brings me back to Oz. Wrench (born 1958) trained in Queensland and Vienna where he was strongly influenced by Leopold Marksteiner and Michael Radulescu. Since 1990 Radulescu (on harmonia mundi) has been conducting the International BACH Organ and Cantata Academy at the famous organ by Jürgen Ahrend (1985) in the former Jesuit Church in Porrentruy, Switzerland. Leopold Marksteiner taught and befriended Austrian playwright, novelist and 2004 Nobel prizewinner Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher (1983).

On this Melba disc the organ by Carsten Lund (born 1940) at Garnisons Kirke, Copenhagen is a modern reconstruction of the 1724 instrument by Lambert Daniel Kastens, successor to German organ builder Arp Schnitger (1648-1719) and active in the trade from 1710 until 1744. The original was destroyed in a great fire in 1728.

NB The fire had raged from 20 until 23 October 1728, leaving twenty percent of the population homeless, and reconstruction lasted until 1737. An estimated forty seven percent of the section of the city, dating back to the Middle Ages, was completely lost, and along with the Copenhagen Fire of 1795 it explains why few traces of medieval Copenhagen can be found in the modern city.

Throughout the Melba recital Wrench's articulation cannot be faulted. Yet too often his selection of register seems somewhat constrained. When Walcha performed Bach's adagios, largos and lente I was drawn to heightened attention. Here I am far less so.

The flute-like 'voices' in Bach's central Adagio (BWV 525) are effectively lyrical, however Wrench's uppermost notes in the following Allegro seem overly shrill.

Listen -- Bach: Adagio (BWV 525)
(track 2, 3:30-4:37) © 2009 Melba Recordings

In the BWV 526 Sonata however he makes the opening Vivace a joyous affair and the Largo has echoes that remind of us of the centrality of Bach's music in German Lutheran worship.

The Andante to the 3rd Sonata (BWV 527) is performed in a curiously plodding manner and the juxtaposition of Wrench's two chosen 'voices' in the Adagio is oddly discomforting, especially in its earlier section, before one becomes 'acclimatized'. Thankfully audio order is restored in the fluently accomplished Vivace.

Listen -- Bach: Vivace (BWV 527)
(track 9, 0:00-0:42) © 2009 Melba Recordings

Sonata No 4 in E minor (BWV 528) departs from the pattern of its companions; commencing with the briefest of Adagios, giving way to a Vivace. This started out as part of a sinfonia for oboe d'amore, viola da gamba and continuo within the Cantata 76 Die Himmel erzählen Ehre Gottes.

Bach's middle movement is marked Andante, resulting in greater forward motion than the corresponding movements of the other sonatas (tracks 2, 5, 8, 14 and 17). The outer movements are the briefest (2'52" and 2'28") of the whole eighteen.

But for a worrying adenoidal register at its adagio outset the 4th Sonata is most agreeable and the concluding Un poc' Allegro has a richly woven counterpoint, a feature still more evident in the latter 1723 sonatas -- BWV 529 and BWV 530.

The C major sonata BWV 529 starts with a resplendent Allegro; arguably the most exhilarating movement of any other among these six works. Yet here again there follows a Largo with more than a suspicion of shrillness in the upper treble sound.

Nevertheless the recital proceeds to an immensely satisfying conclusion. Bach's boisterous, fugal BWV 530 Allegro is no 'walk in the park', but Wrench powers through it with exceptional assurance.

Listen -- Bach: Allegro (BWV 530)
(track 18, 2:34-3:37) © 2009 Melba Recordings

It's in such allegros and vivace that Wrench seems most at home; -- the bonus is in SACD, adding to the frisson that sets this sound apart.

In April 2008 Prism Sound (established 1987 in Cambridge, UK) acquired the business and intellectual property rights of SADiE, and the SADiE DSD8 -- Eight Channel DSD Mastering and Authoring System was used in mastering the multi-channel and stereo mixes for this SACD.

Copyright © 31 August 2009 Howard Smith,
Masterton, New Zealand









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