J.S. Bach: Complete Organ Works

Chris Bragg
Saturday, December 9, 2023

An outstanding testament to one of the more remarkable European organists of the last 40 years

Bernard Foccroulle, various organs
Ricercar RIC289 (15CDs) [19:36:00]

The re-release of Bernard Foccroulle’s complete Bach cycle, primarily recorded between 1982 and 1997, brings back memories of my own teenage years when I listened to several of these discs, then new. Foccroulle’s career has been truly remarkable, combining his activities as one of the outstanding figures of the European organ culture with those as a widely performed composer and artistic director, successively of the Monnaie Opera House in Brussels and the Aix-en-Provence Festival.

It’s a pleasure, therefore, to consider these recordings afresh. There’s an aristocratic quality to Foccroulle’s playing, never self-indulgent, rhythmically stable, occasionally quick. Because of the long gestation period of the project, there is, perhaps inevitably, a sense of increased suppleness in the playing of the later recordings. This is reflected to some extent in the recorded sound – the Leipzig chorales in Freiberg from 1991 are recorded uncomfortably directly, the later recordings are more gracious. The wide variety of (mostly) historic organs contribute enormously to the attractiveness of the survey. Some are famous Bach organs, including Freiberg, and the Martinikerk in Groningen where recordings include a stellar 1987 Clavierübung III (the Fugue especially magnificent) and a group of works include BWV 542 and 582 captured fully 20 years later. Groningen is also heard in the Fantasia ‘Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält’, which came to light in a 19th-century source as recently as 2008.

Among the earliest recordings are those at Ottobeuren, a creative choice for works of French inspiration; BWV 562 is heard with Cornet du Récit in the right hand vs Cromorne in the left, for example. One wonders whether the Schott organ at Muri might still make it into a complete Bach cycle: the result of a 1970 Metzler restoration, undoubtedly impressive for the time, although the winding system has been reconstructed since this recording was made. Especially interesting is the inclusion of some lesser-known, smaller historic organs in the Bach region, such as the 1779 Rommel organ at Zella-Mehlis, with its charming overblowing flute – although here Foccroulle’s playing is occasionally too active, such as in the opening of the A minor Fantasia & Fugue in which the winding, tempo and the unabsorbed 16ft harmonic in the mixture combine to curious effect. Arp Schnitger is represented both in Norden and Hamburg (St Jacobi) – organs perhaps slightly less likely to feature in a Bach cycle now – and the one modern instrument is Thomas’s elegant 1996 Silbermann copy in Leffe.

Generally speaking, Foccroulle’s registrations are uncomplicated; changes of either manual or registration don’t occur in fugues, for example, even if these aren’t always played on a plenum. The Passacaglia is played on subtly varied plena. In general, where plena are used, Foccroulle has a strong predilection for the inclusion of the tierce, understandably, even in places where simpler registrations might now be more likely, such as in the outer movements of the concerto transcriptions. The relatively straightforward registrations used in the trio sonatas in Ponitz, combined with the chamber music acoustics of the village church, are especially attractive. The remaining trio sonatas are recorded in Neresheim and the close microphone positions combined with the large acoustics reveal, here as elsewhere, the odd uncomfortable edit.

The booklet includes Foccroulle’s extensive programme notes (elucidating among other things his choice to present the Leipzig chorales in an order different from that in the manuscript) and his thoughts on the organs although, unfortunately, no specifications or registrations are given.

Even if some of the recordings heard here are now undoubtedly ‘historic’, this is a Complete Bach well worth having for its unaffected playing on outstanding instruments. It is, moreover, an outstanding testament to one of the more remarkable European organists of the last 40 years.

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