Bach ClavierÜbung, Pt 3; Chorales
However arcane in appearance, this programme principally comprises the major chorale preludes which form the basis of the third part of the Clavier-Ubung of 1739. Each one is prefaced, not, as the note states, with chorale harmonizations by Bach, but by the original tunes sans finery, followed by vocal settings by composers of a century earlier, notably Praetorius and the three ‘Ss’, Scheidt, Schein and Schutz. In programming terms, this has considerable merits, not least because Bach’s chorale preludes, framed by the mighty Prelude and Fugue in E flat, are substantial and intense creations which benefit both from interludes and a feel for the legacy of the chorale. The idea of juxtaposing the three elements – monody, a vocal setting and then Bach’s organ music – has no real value as a historical exercise, since this erroneously-termed ‘Organ Mass’ was designed by the composer en masse, so to speak, more as a Trinitarian repository than a self-contained liturgical entity. As with so much of Bach’s music from the last 15 years of his life, the momentum of his work is driven increasingly by a sense of ‘gathering up’ his perceived treasure into representative containers. In the Clavier-Ubung for organ, we have Bach’s concern for posterity, though the manner in which assiduous stile antico counterpoint is ravelled alongside gracious galant gesture reveals the seasoned master at the very peak of his powers; the extraordinarily self-confident exploitation of styles – for the higher purpose rather than to pacify critics who had dubbed him a regressive – appears with compelling frequency, and most obviously in ‘Vater unser’ where strict canon in the chorale is fused nonchalently with a galant Trio.
Leo van Doeselaar is an exceptionally accomplished player, ‘house organist’ of the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and eminently well suited to the challenge of lending just stature to this music. Indeed, the Clavier-Ubung’s great ‘Aus tiefer Noth’, with its pedal parts ‘broken in two’ to form six grinding alla breve counterpoints, is given an unashamedly monumental reading, so too the yearning aspiration of the third ‘Kyrie, Gott heiliger Geist’ which is handled with attention to a motivic growth and harmonic implication which is prescient of at least 100 years later: the apocalyptic chromatic collapse at the end is one of Bach’s most astonishing inventions. Van Doeselaar also gives a sensational, spacious and epic reading of the E flat Fugue, and this is where the true glory of the Bader/Timpe organ is most tellingly heard. There are more poetic accounts of Allein Gott – such as Marie-Claire Alain’s – and the tempos can seem a touch laboured (Dies sind, for example) and cautious in the earlier chorales; recording organs is hard at the best of times, especially as the player tends to play to the building rather than to the microphone, which sacrifices some of the acoustic for clarity of registration. As for the singing, the Netherlands Bach Society Choir provide a genuine rhetorical sensibility under Jos van Veldhoven, who, as in his notable St Matthew Passion released last year (Channel Classics, 5/98), embraces the seventeenth-century vocal concertos with rare humility and intimacy, even if the timbre is intermittently soft-centred. Van Doeselaar takes most of the plaudits in a project which deserves recognition well beyond the organ fraternity. Strongly recommended.'