Pachelbel: Organ Works, Vol 1

Pachelbel: Organ Works, Vol 1
Matthew Owens
1965 Frobenius Organ, The Queen’s College Chapel, Oxford
Resonus RES10285. 71’03

In what promises to be a comprehensive survey of Johann Pachelbel’s organ music, Matthew Owens explores what is probably this enigmatic composer’s least appreciated genre. Pachelbel (1653-1706) was based in South Germany at a time when the famous North German organ school was at its height – he died a year before Buxtehude. His music has been overshadowed by his contemporaries in the northern cities, and this series of recordings should do much to rekindle knowledge of his specific musical style. It will hopefully put to rest his unfortunate post-1970s reputation as the composer of the famous Canon – a piece that is hardly ever performing in a style that Pachelbel would remotely recognise.

Pachelbel was born in Nuremberg and retained strong links with that city, and its St. Sebaldus Church, for the rest of his life. After a short period in Regensburg, Pachelbel moved to Vienna, the capital of the expansive Hapsburg Empire with its strong Italian cultural connections, becoming assistant organist at St Stephen Cathedral. During his time in Vienna, he would have become familiar with the compositions of Froberger, Georg Muffat, and Kerll. During his time in Eisenach and Erfurt, he got to know the wider Bach family, becoming godfather to one, teacher to another and living in the house of another. However, he only met JS Bach once, when the latter was nine years old, at the wedding of his former Bach pupil.

After turning down the offer of a post at Oxford University, he returned to Nuremberg, where he spent the rest of his life, composing some of his finest music, notably the 1699 Hexachordum Apollinis (which included the Aria Sebaldina, a reference to his own church) which he dedicated to Buxtehude, and nearly a hundred Magnificat Fugues on all eight church modes. The twelve fugues on the quinti toni mode are included on this volume.

Matthew Owens opens his recital with one of Pachelbel’s most North German organ pieces, the Prelude in D minor (P407) with its opening pedal solo and multisectional structure. It is successfully segued into the (unrelated) Fugue in D minor (P154), reflecting a more Italianate mood with its descending chromatic theme. The rest of the volume reflects the compositional and organ style of Southern Germany, with its limited use of the pedals, much smaller organs than in the north, and a generally much simpler musical language. The most famous of his six chaconnes, the Ciacona in F minor, P43 is contrasted by two chorale partitas and three of his chorale preludes, both genres in which he was an acknowledged pioneer. What initially appeared to be a segue between the first two pieces turned out to be a feature of the whole recording, with fairly small gaps between the pieces.

The programme is well chosen, with a variety of pieces drawn from across Pachelbel’s organ works to form an effective stand-alone recital. Matthew Owens’ playing is impressively sensitive to the music and includes a welcome sense of appropriate rhythmic freedom, notably in the opening Prelude. He makes very effective use of the various colours of the organ, an essential requirement for a recording with 35 tracks. The recording quality is excellent.

Perhaps appropriately, given its invitation to Pachelbel, the recording is made in Oxford University on the pioneering 1965 Frobenius Organ in the chapel of The Queen’s College, Matthew Owen’s old college. This was one of the first neo-baroque organs in the UK, and influenced a generation of organs that increasingly respected the style and voicing of historic instruments. Unlike many of that generation, it has survived the decades remarkably well and still speaks with an entirely appropriate ‘period’ sound into the appreciative acoustics of the chapel.

More information here.