Bach: Chorale Partitas

J S Bach
Chorale Partitas, BWV 766-768 & 770

Stephen Farr, organ
Resonus Classics RES10120. 55’46

Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen BWV 770
Christ, der du bist der helle Tag BWV 766
O Gott, du frommer Gott BWV 767
Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig BWV 768

Stephen Farr continues his series of Bach organ recordings with the four Chorale Partitas – variations sets of Lutheran chorales. None of them exists in autograph, so dating is problematical. They are almost certainly early works, possibly composed around the time Bach was at Arnstadt, or perhaps even earlier while Bach was under the influence of Georg Böhm, who Bach knew, and probably studied with while he was at school in Lüneburg. Böhm wrote many variation sets (as did Pachbel), a compositional style that goes back the Sweelinck, the Amsterdam instigator of the North German/Hamburg school of the early to mid-17th-century. It is not clear whether Bach’s examples were intended for performance during church services or, indeed, on the organ. Most are equally suitable for clavichord or harpsichord in a domestic setting.

Stephen Farr’s recording manages to combine the use of an organ and a domestic setting. He uses a substantial 2015 three-manual, 30-stop Bernard Aubertin organ in a private house in East Sussex – not an instrument I was familiar with, but quite something to have at home. The photo is from the organ builders website and, judging by the protective sheets, shows the instrument just before the handover. It speaks with a broadly eclectic manner with something of a French accent, and works well with these Bach pieces, particularly with Stephen Farr’s sensitive and appropriate use of registration. It is in a modern, A440, pitch and tuned in the moderate Young temperament of 1800. It speaks into a reasonable acoustic, allowing the stops to blend. The recording from the Resonance team is excellent, catching both the details of the speech of individual pipes as well as the impressive pleno of the full organ and a decent acoustic decay.

Aubertan  Fairwarp 2015.jpg

Stephen Farr makes full use of the resources of the organ, albeit with occasional rather sharp jumps from very quiet to loud registrations, notably at the end of Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen. His choice of registrations combines effective interpretation of the musical score (there is no real evidence of specific links to verses of the underlying chorale texts) and to an obvious need to demonstrate the various colours of the specific organ. He uses a lot of registrations with a single stop, or two stops combined (sometimes from different coupled manuals), and frequently plays stops an octave above or below the intended pitch, adding even more colours to the 30 stops of the organ. Only two stops are not used, the pedal 8′ Trompette (instead coupling down the Trompette of the Grand Organ) and the 8′ Unda Maris of the Recit – an undulating stop of a later period than Bach, although he would have known similar stops in Thuringia.

Stephen Farr’s playing is generally relatively brisk, but as a result of impeccable articulation and touch the sound remains admirably clear in the acoustic. He allows himself some subtle differences in the speeds between variations, an aspect of performance that is open to discussion. His quick release of final chords is an aspect of Bach performance that is often evident from the surviving scores, but one that is rarely followed by performers. He starts with BWV 770, probably the earliest of the set, and then proceeds in BWV numerical and complexity order, culminating in the magnificent Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig with its impressive final two variations

The CD sensibly excludes BWV 769, the Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her. It is included with the other Partitas in the sequence of BWV numbers but was written in 1747, many years after the other four Partitas, and in a completely different style. This recording quite correctly focusses on these early, and not often performed, works, a lovely example of the young Bach working out his style and absorbing the style of others.

More information and a link to the programme notes (in English only) can be found here. The organ specification and full details of all the registrations are included, along with David Lee’s detailed analysis of the variations.