Bach: Orgelbüchlein

Bach: Orgelbüchlein
Stephen Farr
1724-30 Trost organ, of Waltershausen, Germany.
Resonus RES10259. 79’02

Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) is one of the most extraordinary of all Bach’s organ collections and compositions. At first sight, it a simple collection of chorale preludes intended to introduce the sung chorales in the Lutheran services. Bach also intended it as a way “in which a beginning organist receives instruction on performing a chorale in a multitude of ways while achieving mastery in the study of the pedal”. But the sequence of 45 chorales, and the tantalising sight of 119 potential chorales for which only the title and an empty page exists, are a sum of a great deal more than a sum of the parts, leading to Albert Schweitzer’s description of it as “one of the greatest events in all music.”.   

The Orgelbüchlein was put together in the early part of Bach’s career, while in the service of the Weimar Dukes between 1708-17. It is possible that is was intended as a potential calling card for another appointment, perhaps in Halle. As Stephen Farr comments in his notes on the recording of the Orgelbüchlein, that would have suggested the use of very simple foundation stops for most of the pieces, and playing speeds very much slower than is usual today – something that Farr sensibly avoids. The question of the speed of sung chorales arises for many chorale-based works of the German Baroque.

With few exceptions, all the preludes adopt the same formula of being harmonised in four parts with the choral melody in the treble, each line played without a break, the accompanying voices all based on the chorale melody which is heard at the start of the piece. In several of the preludes, the chorale melody is heard in canon, in one case (In dir ist Freude, BWV 615) the canon appears in all the voices.

The 1724-30 Tobias Heinrich Gottfried Trost organ in the c1720 Stadtkirche in Waltershausen, Germany is entirely appropriate. Waltershausen is in an area of Thuringia that is full of Bach references, including Erfurt, Weimar, Arnstadt, Eisenach. It is the largest organ of its time in Thuringia. It retains about 70% of the original pipework and has been restored back to its original 1730 state. Bach may well have known it, and certainly approved of Trost as an organ builder. It is positioned in the triple-decker form typical of Cental Germany with the organ positioned high above the altar and pulpit forming a three-fold vertical focus at the front of the church.

Trost organ, Waltershausen.jpg

It is not an easy organ to play or, I imagine, to record, and some mechanical noise does appear in the recording. The action is very heavy and the pedalboard is very wide, even by historic German standards. It was apparently recorded over a two-day period, which, given the need to acclimatise to the idiosyncrasies of the organ itself as well as working out registrations for 46 pieces, is quite an achievement. For his own sake, I hope that Farr had plenty of rehearsal time before those two days of recording.
[Update: Stephen Farr twlls me that the entire recording process was completed from around 7pm on Friday evening to 1pm on Sunday afternoon, including rehearsal time. A remarkable achievement.]

The very first sound we hear is one of those distinctive combinations of 8′ stops that so typify the central German organ of Bach’s time, something that those weaned on Bach on North German Schnitger style organs would find horrifying. In this case, it is a combination of the 8′ Gemshorn, Viol d’ Gambe and Portun (a Gedackt), just three of the six 8′ foundation stops on the Hauptwerk. The gravitas that Bach wanted in organs is provided by three 16′ manual stops, five 16′ pedal stops and a 32′ Posaunen-Bass. With commendable restraint, Farr only uses the 32′ pedal twice, in BWV 620 and BWV 630.

In the preludes BWV 604 and 605 we hear the two Sesquialtera registrations, first on the Brustwerk and then the Hauptwerk. The Brustwerk is the second most important manual, taking the place of the North German Ruckpositiv. In the well-known O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde groß, BWV 622 we hear the plaintive sound of the solo Nassad-Quint accompanied by the Hauptwerk 16′ Portun-Untersatz played an octave higher. Stephen Farr’s choice of registrations is extremely well-judged, both in terms of his own response to the mood and theme of the chorale itself, but also in terms of performing a sequence of 46 pieces.

Stephen Farr’s playing is commendably sensitive and devoid of the mannerisms that making repeated listening tricky. With the exception of the added ornaments in BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir (which I thought might come from one of the later versions of some of the Orgelbüchlein preludes which could be authentic revisions from Bach – but now realise that they were Stephen’s own additions), he plays with respect to the score, a steady pulse and a feeling for long arch of the melodic lines in the chorale theme and accompaniments.

More information, ordering options, and a link to download the programme notes can be found at the Resonus website here.