Bach: Organ Chorales

JS Bach
Organ Chorales of the Leipzig manuscript/Schübler Chorales
Vincent van Laar
Aliud ACDBN 103-2. 2CDs 60’32+52’34

There are many recordings of these pieces, so a new one needs to be judged by what it can offer that others cannot. One question is about the nature of performing in recital and for a recording. It is generally accepted that performers can be much freer in their interpretation when playing live than in recording. An interpretational flourish in a recital is a take-it-or-leave event, which may well not repay repeated listening. So recordings tend to be ‘safer’ interpretations. Some recordings are, in effect, ‘live’, in that they are either taken from a live recital, or are performed as if live, without editing or re-takes. On this recording, Vincent van Laar generally plays in the ‘safe’ zone, but there are a few occasions when he steps into a more personal mode. And it is these moments that make this recording worth considering. 

In some of the pieces, he includes a subtle rubato-like variation in the pulse of individual notes, within the overall tactus beat, that gives an attractive sense of the ebb and flow of Bach’s musical lines. These moments never approach the overly individualistic style of some performers, whose mannerisms quickly become tiresome. But they do lift those pieces above the ‘safe’ interpretations.

The choice of organ is a good one but, again, is not unique amongst Bach organ recordings, and does have its questions.  The organ in the St Petrikirche, Melle, Germany, was built in 1724 by Christian Vater, a pupil of Arp Schnitger. It was restored to its original specification and voicing in 2000. it is a substantial three-manual instrument, the largest surviving Vater organ in Germany. It is in the traditional North German style that influenced Bach in his youth, but was different from the Saxon and Thuringian organs that he was more used to, and for which most of his later organ music was composed, including the works on this recording. That said, Vincent van Laar makes some interesting registration choices, notably O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig (BWV656). The three verses are usually playing with increasing volume, but on this recording is playing throughout on the distinctive combination of the Ruckpositive Gedact 8′ and Quintaden 8′ with the addition of the 4′ Spitzfloit for the final verse. This creates a very different, and very effective mood.

Worth a listen, but do compare with other recordings of this repertoire.

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