Bach in Advent: Clavier-Übung III

Bach in Advent
David Titterington, Siglo de Oro, Patrick Allies
Bach Clavier-Übung III ‘German Organ Mass’
St John’s, Smith Square. 21 December 2017

During the three-week run-up to Christmas, St John’s, Smith Sq has been running a series of free early evening organ recital, given by the curator of the SJSS Klais organ, David Titterington, and focussed on the music of JS Bach. The two I had intended to hear before evening concerts were both cancelled, but I did catch the evening concert that concluded the series. This was a performance of the major pieces from Bach’s Clavier-Übung III, occasionally referred to this Bach’s monumental work, the largest single collection of his organ music. It was published in 1739 and includes a wide range of musical style, in the form of chorale preludes (in pairs, with larger pedaliter and smaller manualiter arrangement) based on the German Lutheran Mass, together with four duets, the whole enclosed with a large-scale Praeludium and Fugue – the latter known in the UK as the ‘St Anne Fugue’ after the hymn tune which the theme resembles. 

For this concert, David Titterington played all the large pedaliter settings except two, the baptismal choral Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam, and the final one on the communion chorale, Jesus Christus, unser Heiland – the latter a curious omission, considering its importance within the concept of Lutheran Mass. The choir Siglo de Oro, directed by Patrick Allies, sang the chorales before, rather than after (as would have been the case in a service of Bach’s time) each of the preludes, and also bookended the interval with two Bach motets, Lobet den Herrn and Komm Jesu, komm. 

I have praised Siglo d’Oro several times before, in concert and on CD, but on this occasion, the very challenging repertoire of the two motets revealed something of a lack of consort. A couple of voices became prominent through a rather edgy tone, and a couple more through excessive vibrato. But the clarity of their articulation was impressive throughout, most notably in the helter-skelter semiquavers of Lobet den Herrn – and chorales were sung well. It is perhaps invidious to pick out single members of a choir, but I did like soprano Helena Thomson’s singing.

The musical progression of Bach’s organ settings of the three parts of the Kyrie is particularly impressive. They start with a gentle treble solo, followed by a grander Christe with a tenor cantus firmus before the monumental second Kyrie, a powerful setting “Con Organo pleno” with the theme in the pedals below four-part fugal writing for the manuals. Titterington’s rhythmically methodical playing reinforced the inexorable build-up towards the conclusion, which is one of the most dramatic in Bach’s oeuvre, the harmonies seeming to collapse during the final plea of eleison – have mercy.

Clarity was difficult to achieve on the organ with the full registrations used for the pleno (=full) organ pieces, and some of the gentler pieces, the sound appearing rather muddy in the relatively dry acoustic of SJSS. This was particularly evident in the final Organo pleno chorale prelude Aus tiefer Noth, with its archaic use of double pedal with the theme in the upper of the two pedal parts. This technique was common in the mid 17th-century from the composers that preceded Buxtehude. Making the theme clear is difficult, and usually requires doubling the upper pedal line in the manuals although, in this piece, that is tricky given that there are already four manual voices. Unfortunately, the layout of the programme note led the audience to think this was the end of the concert, so applause covered the opening of the ‘St Anne’ fugue.

There were two particularly effective moments, the first at the end of Allein Gott in der Hõh’ sei Rhr’ where Titterington honoured Bach’s clearly marked, but often ignored intention to finish with a short note. The second was his playing of Vater Unser (the German Lord’s Prayer). This one of the most complex of all Bach’s organ works to play. It is a complex trio sonata with distinctive snapped rhythms into which is inserted an additional two voices – the chorale theme, played in canon, alongside the line of the trio sonata. Unusually, the chosen registrations were very similar in both hands, making it difficult to pick out the individual voices. The unstoppable momentum of the concluding ‘St Anne’ fugue, played, quite correctly, on the same registration throughout – (apart from tempting pedal additions towards the end), brought the evening to a close, and the end of what must have been an exhausting three weeks of Bach playing for David Titterington.

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This was a concert that cried out for the normal SJSS seating to be reversed so that we could face the organ case – something that was apparently originally planned by SJSS staff but was declined by the performers. Although the organist is out of sight, there is something weird about hearing a concert from an instrument that is behind you. For that reason, a number of churches with liturgically ‘west-end’ organs have seating that is capable of switching easily from one direction to the other, just by moving the seat back. The main (upper) case is an important 18th-century case, originally in Norfolk, so worth looking at.

 

 

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