JS Bach: Complete Organ Works – Volume 8

JS Bach: Complete Organ Works – Volume 8
Organ Chorales of the Leipzig Manuscript
Ed. Jean-Claude Zehnder
Breitkopf & Härtel 2015
Edition Breitkopf EB8808
184pp + CD

Editions of Bach’s organ works are something of a minefield, even when there are clear autograph scores available. In many cases that is not the case, so the role of the editor and the availability and accuracy of available sources becomes an important consideration. Of all the publishers to be involved in Bach, Breitkopf & Härtel are perhaps the most appropriate. Founded in Leipzig in 1719  four years before Bach took up his post there, they were the first to publish the complete works of Bach, between 1851 and 1900 for the Bach-Gesellschaft. Unfortunately, at the moment, I only have access to one volume of their latest complete Bach Organ Works, so cannot comment on the 10 volume set as a whole.

The chorales from the Leipzig Manuscript are known by a variety of names, one of which is the ‘Eighteen Chorales’. This is misleading, not least because there are arguably either 15, 17 or 18 chorales in the collection. The first 13 were transcribed by Bach around 1740, adding two more around 1746. Another two chorales were added by Bach’s pupil, Altnickol, possibly after Bach’s death. The final chorale, Vor deinen Thron tret ich, (the so-called ‘deathbed’ chorale) was added by an unknown scribe, probably also after Bach’s death. The current favoured title of the ‘Leipzig Chorales’ is similarly misleading, because most of the pieces were first composed in Weimer, and only later revised in Leipzig. Breitkopf includes both the earlier Weimar and later Leipzig versions in this volume, with the later versions printed first. Barenreiter has the rather more practical solution of printing the Weimer chorales after the complete Leipzig set. That said, the Breitkopf solution of keeping the two versions together should encourage performers to compare the two versions. For An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653) two earlier versions are included.

The editor, John-Claude Zehnder, provides exemplary notes to the edition and to the individual pieces, with a particularly interested section on ornamentation. As is so often the case, much of the information is in German, although there is far more English translation in this edition that in most of the competitors. And the CD-ROM attached inside the rear cover includes full English translations (also available online) as well as alternative versions. It is in landscape format, with a size of 320x250x13mm.

The print quality is excellent, with an off-white background and very clear notation. I haven’t spotted any errors of notation or of note alignment. Editorial accidentals are printed in smaller font, and are reasonably easy to spot, although they would be more obvious if they were printed above the note. Of the examples I checked, page turns Bach 8.jpgseem better than in Barenreiter’s edition. One particularly useful feature is a ‘Page turn aid’ in O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig, with a few bars of the following page printed in smaller, but readable text, at the foot of page 81 (pictured). Barenreiter includes the chorale melodies and the full title of the pieces, rather than just the name of the chorale. Breitkopf include the layout of the original opening bar at the start of each piece, showing the clefs and key signature.

I look forward to seeing other volumes from this serious. On the basis of this example, I think they could be an important addition to Bach scholarship and performance. At current pricing, this volume seems to be slightly cheaper than its competitors. More information can be found here. It can be viewed, complete here.

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