Supplementary Bach

J S Bach organ works – supplementary volume (IX )
Margaret Phillips, 1997 Draps/2008 Flentrop organ, Sint Niklaas, Belgium.
Regent REGCD454. 74’28

Eight Short Preludes & Fugues BWV 553–560; Fantasia duobus subjectis in g BWV 917; An Wasserflussen Babylon BWV 653b; Fantasia in C minor BWV 1121; Trio in G minor BWV 584; Prelude, Trio & Fugue in B flat BWV 545b; Ricercar a 3, Ricercar a 6 (Musical Offering) BWV 1079; Fantasia sopra Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält BWV 1128.

Image of the CD coverAs a supplement to Margaret Phillips’ 16 CDs of Bach organ works (published as eight double CDs plus this volume), this CD includes alternative versions, pieces usually allocated to but probably not by Bach, pieces not intended for organ, and one piece had not been rediscovered when the other Bach pieces were recorded, between 2005 and 2009. You could fill a further 16 CD with such peripheral and alternative pieces, so the selection of these 16 must have been quite a task. The choice is an excellent one, balancing well-known pieces such with little-known works like the Fantasia duobus subjectis.

With her strong roots in organ teaching, it is no surprise that Margaret Phillips opens the programme with the so-called ‘Eight short Preludes and Fugues’, the mainstay of most organist’s early experience and perhaps because of that, both over-rated and under-rated. Whether they are by Bach or not, these little pieces are far more attractive and informative than they are generally made out to be. Curiously, Bach scholarship suggests that they could either by a very youthful work by Bach, or written by one of Bach’s students, the gap in possible composition dates explained by the fact that the style is later than early Bach, but not up to late Bach’s compositional talents. But they remain delightful microcosms of 18th century organ style and technique.

One of the most interesting pieces is the very curious Prelude, Trio & Fugue in B flat (BWV 545b), a variant of the ‘Weimar’ Praeludium und Fuga in C that survives in a single manuscript written by Benjamin Cooke, the organist of Westminster Abbey in the late 18th century. He, obviously incorrectly, notes that it was by his predecessor John Robinson. We have no idea how knowledge of the original work (in an early version, without the scary opening pedal flourish) came to England or how this version came to be written, particularly as it would have been unplayable on any English at the time. Another new piece to many will be the Fantasia sopra Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (BWV 1128), a youthful Bach essay in the Hamburg/Lübeck chorale fantasia style with the inevitable interplay between two manuals.

Photograph of Margaret Phillips standing in front of her chamber organ, James Davis c.1795.Margaret Phillips plays with a methodically rock-steady pulse and consistent and carefully applied touch and articulation, with only a very subtle sense of personal musical intervention. Although playing like this can produce performances of the utmost tedium, Margaret Phillips manages to avoid this – indeed, her rhythmic steadiness adds to Bach’s frequent build up of musical intensity, for example in the concluding Ricercar a 6 from the Musical Offering.  Although perhaps not the most exciting performing style for live recitals, for recordings it makes for particularly good reference interpretations, devoid of the mannerisms and individual quirks that many organists feel obliged to litter their playing with. The CD included details of the organ – unusually, for this series, a modern instrument, but sounding very much like organs of Bach’s time. Notes are given on all the pieces, together with detail of the registrations.

I wouldn’t normally advertise forthcoming concerts (apart from my own!) but it worth noting that, on Thursday 23 September  2015, Margaret Phillips is starting a series of 18 recitals featuring the ‘complete’ organ works of Bach on the splendid organ of St George’s, Hanover Square in London. Details can be found at http://www.margaretphillips.org.uk/sghs.pdf.

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