bach organ herrick hyperion

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2003 and the recording is still available.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
The Complete Organ Music

Christopher Herrick (organ)
rec. 1989-1999
Hyperion CDS44121/36 [16 CDs: c 20hrs]

The Hyperion set of the complete organ music of Bach is a worthy tribute to the greatest composer of organ music the world has known. Not only are Christopher Herrick’s performances faithful and imaginative, and the recordings accurate and truthful, the organisation and presentation standards of the 16-CD set are exemplary too.

This last point is important, since the listener is just as likely to be seeking out a particular item as to be listening to a longer sequence at random. At the very beginning of the booklet comes a listing made by catalogue (BWV) number, allocating each piece, large and small, to a particular disc. Then the details and introductory notes for each piece are printed in disc order in the booklet. Beyond this there are also specifications and illustration of the organs used in the project. The notes, which are both substantial and lucid, are found in German and English, and run to nearly 200 pages. As such this is an invaluable and substantial source of information.

Bach’s formal employment in the role of organist was in the early part of his career only. Therefore most of the organ music we hear today probably originated during the Weimar years, between 1708 and 1717, and was no doubt connected in some way with his duties as court organist there. But even after that time, although he never again directly held an organist’s position, Bach required organ music for the purposes of particular occasions such as recitals or ceremonies. He therefore continued the process of composing and revising organ music until the very last years of his life.

The nature of the circumstances that apply to so much of the organ music is reflected in the way that it has been preserved. Except for the Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), Bach seems to have shown little interest at Weimar in publishing collections of his organ music in sets, as he would do with his clavier and instrumental music at Cöthen. This was presumably because he always intended to perform it himself. In fact it was not until much later that he bestowed some kind of order on his manuscripts. The autograph of the six organ sonatas, for instance, dates from about 1727, while all the other published works appeared only during the last decade of his life. It is therefore relatively difficult to be sure of the exact provenance of much of this music. Nor has all of it survived in manuscript, and some of the ‘earliest editions’ are of doubtful quality, even doubtful authenticity (as this ‘complete’ set confirms).

In view of all this it is certainly the case that the organ music raises more issues of chronology, and sometimes even of authorship, than any other aspect of the Bach’s work as a composer.

As with all great music there is more than one way of playing Bach’s organ works, but as ever, in the hands of a fine musician the results will sound as though the performance could not possibly be otherwise. Christopher Herrick is both distinguished enough and talented enough to have been entrusted with this major project, and he offers us performances of estimable virtuosity and musical insight. Across 16 CDs it would be trite to give too generalised a summary of his achievement, but it is true that his approach does lend the music great vitality. Never does he opt for an approach that puts massive monumentality at a higher priority than mobility.

In the Trio Sonatas the style is naturally lighter than in some of the more intellectually inclined pieces, and Herrick’s choices of instrument seems unfailingly appropriate in matching the sound quality to the musical priorities. This first disc has many subtleties, of tone colour in particular. These pieces have gained the title ‘trio sonata’ (in Germany ‘orgel-trio’) because there are three parts: right hand, left hand and pedal. There are also doubts about the purpose for which the music was written and, as ever with this composer, some of the musical material is borrowed from other compositions.

In more powerful music, such as the great C minor Passacaglia, the combination of powerful sonority with detail of contrapuntal texture is wonderfully combined. All praise to the recording engineers for their part in achieving this elusive yet crucial balance of opposites. For Bach the term ‘Passacaglia’ signified a set of continuous variations on a repeated short theme. This is the only one of his compositions to bear this formal title, although he did write other works on the ground bass pattern. Developing from a clear-cut eight-bar theme, the work has an architectural grandeur and cumulative sweep that are both compelling and powerful. There is a sequence of twenty variations, followed by a fugue, and the unity is enhanced by merging of one variation into the next, ensuring an effect of continuity. And in the fugue the first half of the theme is combined with a contrasted counter-subject in a display of contrapuntal ingenuity and intellectual power. All these abundant strengths and associated challenges are reflected in Christopher Herrick’s playing, and his performance in each case is nothing less than a tour-de-force.

The famous D minor Toccata (and Fugue) likewise has notable momentum and direction, according it great freshness. The unequivocal opening gesture has become almost hackneyed in its insistent presentation, but Herrick succeeds in wiping away any cobwebs with the freshly articulated flow of the music as it proceeds.

In the chorale partitas, dexterity and lightness of colour become significant features, and the choice of the organ at Bremgarten was absolutely right for this purpose. Again the mobility of the musical line is a noteworthy feature, since this affords each of these shorter pieces the opportunity to make its special personality known.

This trend continues throughout the shorter pieces in fact. The chorale preludes of the Meuleister chorales and the Orgelbüchlein are as fine as any in the catalogue, always clearly and spontaneously articulated. The essential simplicity of these brief chorale preludes is not to deny their subtlety, of course, and the special clarity of texture that is the hallmark of the whole set is perhaps the really crucial factor. Never has a cantus firmus line in Bach been so effortlessly and clearly balanced in a recorded performance. Of course the original Lutheran texts will determine the ‘meaning’ of the music and thus the nature of its performance. Sometimes the sheer vitality of a prelude may strike the listener as surprising, but check it against the text source and Herrick has invariably arrived at the heart of the matter.

The Kirnberger and Leipzig chorales form another important aspect of this large area of chorale prelude repertory, by its very nature something of a byway in Bach’s output. Again Herrick does the music the service of clarifying its strengths and articulating the special personality of each individual piece. This is all the more interesting since some of the Leipzig Chorales, for example, offer varied treatments of the same basic material. To compare these is fascinating, of course, all the more since Herrick seems reluctant to overdo the pacing of these items at either extreme of tempo, even when the associated times in the church’s calendar might have encouraged him to do so. Perhaps some listeners who know their Bach particularly well, and in the process have established firm opinions in these matters, may feel that these performances miss an opportunity, sensitive though they are to the possibilities in the scores.

The substantial sequences of preludes, fantasias and fugues bring more imposing challenges, for both the performer and the listener, not to mention the recording engineers. For in this repertoire there is more weight, both of intellect and of sound. Perhaps in the C minor Fantasia and Fugue other players, such as Peter Hurford (Decca) have been more sonorously rich, perhaps more massive in tone, but Herrick’s view remains equally valid, with its emphasis on clarity of line and attention to detail of texture. The astonishing intellectual cogency of this music comes through very clearly indeed, and its spirit too.

The concerto transcriptions are notoriously difficult to bring off in performance, but Herrick has some lovely touches in this music. Witness, for example, the light shadings of colour that he achieves in the slow movements from Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico (original Violin Concertos, Opus 3). These delicate touches are the high point of this aspect of the collection. Perhaps the faster movements seem a little less successful, since the instrument (the organ of St Peter and St Paul, Villmergen) in its acoustic makes a biting and clear articulation seem hard to achieve, so that the rhythmic vitality of the music is articulated less than clearly. The best of the faster concerto movements is surely the finale of the D minor Concerto. On the other hand, the piece based on original music by Johann Ernst seems less inspired, but that response may be related to the quality of the music itself, of course.

Each performer in this repertoire must have his own view of how best to present it, one piece relative to another. Herrick makes out a case for breaking up the music of the famous collection known as the Clavierübung rather more than is generally found. In particular this is true of Part 3, the so-called German Organ Mass, since he places the delightful Four Duets within a separate collection, on a different disc under the heading of ‘Miniatures’. And for the remaining Clavierübung music, he carefully chooses an instrument appropriate to the nature of each item, be it the mighty E flat Prelude and Fugue or the ten lighter chorales, which are played on a single-manual chamber organ. Such options are hardly available in the ‘real world’ and have their indulgent side, to be sure. But for the purposes of a complete collection, for long-term reference on disc, rather than in a live performance, this approach has much to commend it, since it aims to capture the essence of the music.

This impressive collection is completed by groups of ‘Miniatures’ and ‘Attributions’. The latter are treated with just as much respect and faith as the better known masterworks, and the music emerges strongly as a result. The variations known as the Chorale Partita, Allein Gott, stand out especially. If this was not the work of the master, then the composer responsible deserves all possible praise. This disc may not include the most famous music in the set, nor indeed the best, but it is well worth exploring. The commitment of Herrick and his Hyperion colleagues comes across in every bar.

The two discs entitled ‘Miniatures’ and the other entitled ‘Cornucopia’ are full of delights, most of them hardly known. The quality of the musical invention is such that it is hardly fair to single out some of pieces above the others, but there is one really strong piece, the Alla breve, BWV589. The sheer range of these smaller-scale items is represented by the comparisons with the slighter and more entertaining, charming pieces inspired by Telemann and Couperin, as examples.

Bach spent his whole life working in northern Germany. However, his organ music, in common with other aspects of his creative work, reveals that as a musician he was thoroughly aware of contemporary musical trends, and in the most international of stylistic contexts. This collection of 16 CDs represents a major undertaking, and undoubtedly ranks among the finest achievements of the recorded music industry in recent times. At such an attractive price, and economically gathered in beautifully designed packaging, any collector who does not already possess recordings of this wonderful music should seek to acquire it.

Terry Barfoot

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