Jean-Luc Thellin

J.S.Bach - Organ Works 04

This fourth volume of the organ works of the famous Kantor of the ThomasKirche in Leipzig takes us this time to Strasbourg. Le Temple du Bouclier possesses a remarkable instrument, perfectly adapted to Bachs repertoire. It is build by Thomas, whose qualities you have already been able to appreciate in previous volumes.

The programme on this disc is resolutely different from the first three. I have chosen here works of great importance which sometimes still reveal the influence of Italy in its composition. The mature, complex and dense writing of the Leipzig chorales as well as the Dorian Toccata and Fugue will contrast with more humble and scholastic pieces despite their tense tonalities, as in the trio on "Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr", BWV 664.

The Leipzig Autograph, from which the chorales played here are taken, provides at least one piece of evidence: "These pages were developed or copied in Bach's final years of work, perhaps even in the last months of his life, since we see him, through his writing, struggling with increasing blindness...". This probably explains why the musician was forced to dictate the last three chorales to friendly hands, including his son-in-law Altnikol.

The rich and varied backgrounds of this instrument will be highlighted through the different styles of writing in the chorales as well as in the Fugue in B minor and the Prelude in G minor. The result is a more subdued and less exuberant atmosphere than in the previous volume. This programme, after having swept away sober and tense tonalities, will close in apotheosis with a brilliant D major chord to lead us to a more luminous one.

01-02. Praeludium & Fuge, e-Moll, BWV 548

A monument to Bach's organ works, as well as to the entire history of the Baroque organ repertoire, this grandiose diptych is certainly one of Bach's most developed and elaborate. First of all by its proportions (the longest of all the preludes and fugues), by the complexity of its counterpoint, by its virtuosity. The prelude, built like a magnificent concerto movement, is, in fact, based on very simple but highly developed musical elements. It is, in fact, divided into three large sections with ripienos and concertinos as in Italy in the concertos grosso. The contrapuntal and rhythmic activity is constant with a pedal part devoted to the role of a rich, active continuo, leaving room only in long holds for a calming in the mobility of the discourse.

The fugue, for its part, is based on a particular motif. It starts from E (the tonic playing the role of tonal affirmation) and gradually opens up chromatically like a fan or butterfly wings to finally reach the dominant note (B). This fugue is unusual in that it is also divided into three large sections (as is the prelude). Following the exposition, there is a complete break in the discourse, which leads us into instrumental solo passages similar to the great soloist cadenzas, as in Vivaldi's Seasons for example. True musical lace, we find there the alternation of ripieno and concertino symbolised by the presence or absence of the pedal. A brief return to the eighth-note elements of the opening allows us to breathe before a second section that is very virtuosic and increasingly complex. The fugue ends with a return to the exposition and a brilliant Picardy third.

03. Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV 654

"Through you, dear soul, leave the dark caves of sin, come to the shining light, begin to glow with magnificence, for the Lord, full of welcome and grace, now invites himself as a guest, he who can fill heaven, will now find refuge in you".

This is probably the most famous of the eighteen chorales in the Leipzig autograph together with the "Nun komm der heiden heiland" in an ornate version. The solo is subtly ornamented and each time introduced by an accompanying ritornello as Buxtehude did in his chorale preludes. The first two verses are repeated because they are mentioned twice in the hymn. The gentle, collected and calm atmosphere is directly related to the solemn key of E-flat major, symbolizing the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). The relevance of this choral prelude made a deep impression on Schumann and Mendelssohn, who were marked by its perfection and the emotions it evokes.

04-05. Praeludium & Fuge, g-Moll, BWV 535

This page is an enigma in Bach's keyboard oeuvre. Indeed, it is difficult to say whether it is dedicated to the organ or to the harpsichord, despite its pedal part, because the writing is so virtuoso, over-ornamented and twirling. This prelude is free, provocative and exuberant, leaving the performer the choice of whether to conceive it as expressive or highly virtuosic. One notes, all the same, a meticulous work of an acceleration of the writing by working on the note values from one section to another. Only the grand conclusion, more massive and contrapuntally richer, will allow the transition to the rigorous writing of the fugue. This aesthetic is very similar to the Well-Tempered Clavier.

06. Fantasia, c-Moll, BWV 570

The Fantasy in C major BWV 570 is one of his earliest works, probably composed during his tenure as organist in Arnstadt (1703-1706) or perhaps during his first year in Mühlhausen (1707). It is one of the few organ pieces by Bach that does not belong to the great combinations of prelude and fugue or fantasy and fugue. It was not until his move to Weimar in 1708 that Bach composed more diptychs of this genre, although he did compose a few examples beforehand, including the Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565.  This fantasy is written in four voices for manual without pedals. For this reason, it can be played on other keyboard instruments (harpsichord or clavichord). The careful harmonic scheme and the general tendency of the rhythmic movement (progressively denser and more active as note values diminish and imitation accelerates) foreshadow the stylistic characteristics of Bach's mature keyboard works.

07. Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 662 a 2 clav e ped Canto Fermo in Soprano

"To God alone in heaven be Glory, and thanksgiving for his mercy, For now nor ever, no harm can come to us, God has given us his consent, Now is a great peace without end, All discord has now ceased."

Bach treats this theme from the "Gloria" three times here with strength and refinement. The first is an ornate chorale making a barely concealed allusion to the Trinitarian side of the situation in this hymn. In addition to the rich ornamentation, the presence of triple-note rhythms is a clear indication of its precise and expressive character. The presence of an adagio, a singular, extremely rare addition to Bach's chorales, makes it particularly striking and intriguing, as if it symbolised the Christian's expectation of joy that seems to explode at the end. The ornamentation, also present in abundance in the accompaniment, considerably reinforces the festive face of this work and thus makes it a very special example in the production of the ornate chorales of the Leipzig Kantor.

08. Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 663 a 2 clav e ped Canto Fermo in Tenore

The second part of this triptych, which is similar to the Weimar ethic, is in the key of G major (the key of the sun, which immediately brings us a special joy). This choice of G major is not random and reminds us that there is a fourth large version of this quantum in the "Clavier-Übung III" treated in trio and also in the key of G. This second version from Leipzig has the peculiarity of stating the ornamented tenor solo, which is particularly rare, especially given the complexity of the ornamentation which makes the melody practically disappear. The commentary, for its part, is built almost entirely on the thematic elements of the hymn. Richly written, with fugal, complex aspects, the use of trumpet playing here allows the solo to retain a relevant attack despite its deeper range and at the same time recalls the colourful influence of North German instruments that Bach discovered during his trip to Lübeck.

09. Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 664 a 2 clav e ped.

The third part of this triptych is a trio (it is one of the three chorales in the Leipzig collection treated as a trio with the second part of "Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland" BWV 660 and "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend" BWV 655. Based on a speech in garlands of noble crotchets passing from the right hand to the left, the chorale seems far away. But don't be fooled, for it is very present, bursting in every beat of the motif. The evocation of a joyful song of thanksgiving is firmly present here. The chorale concludes with a tightening of the harmonic tension and the motives that seem to accelerate, and finally, the cantus firmus blooms in the pedal in long value, soothing the discourse until the end.

10-11-12. Concerto, d-Moll, BWV 974

Alessandro Marcello's Concerto for Oboe and Strings in D minor was composed in the early 1700s (probably 1708) and became one of his best-known works thanks to Johann Sebastian Bach's transcription for solo keyboard also in D minor (Concerto BWV 974). It is also one of the most frequently performed oboe concertos. In the past, and still today, it has been mistakenly attributed to his brother Benedetto Marcello and Antonio Vivaldi. The transcription of Italian concerti was very much in vogue in Germany in Bach's time, and many composers traveled and brought this orchestral tradition with them. The transcription here is made for keyboard (which includes all keyboards, whether organ, harpsichord, spinet, clavichord etc.). One can nevertheless imagine that it must have been a two-manual instrument in order to bring the solo of the second movement to life and thus play on the richness of musical colour as well as on the alternation of the ripieno and the concertino.

13-14. Toccata & Fuge, d-Moll, BWV 538

Dorian... this name coming from the Dorian mode, or mode of D, simply means that, unlike the key of D minor, no B flat is applied to the key signature. Bach therefore refers to it in this particular case, which does not prevent us from thinking that he did it more for convenience than for compositional reflection. This toccata is based on a concertante alternation of the two plenums of the organ, a little like a concertante form that we will have encountered throughout this recording in many different ways. Orchestral thought is present in every detail, both in the ornamentation and in the balance and dialogue between the sound planes. Even if we do not have the first autograph, a copy allows us to confirm that all the annotations on the score are in Bach's hand, even though some doubts remained about their authenticity.

As for the fugue, it is one of the longest (222 measures) and most compact that Bach wrote for the organ (we find the same style in the Toccata fugue in F major). Purely vocal in style, it unfolds in long, peaceful values emphasizing the tonic and (rather rare) the sub-dominant tone, thus providing a very gentle atmosphere to the subject. This immense polyphony unfolds gradually in a great crescendo of registers, finally arriving, on a large plenum and a long pedal, on the dominant surmounted by very orchestral chords that conclude this emblematic page.