Programme notes: Bõhm & Bach

Mayfair Organ Concerts
The Grosvenor Chapel, Mayfair

Tuesday 21 March 2023

Andrew Benson-Wilson
plays music by
Bõhm & Bach

Bõhm. Partita: Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele
Trio: Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele
Bach. Fantasia pro Organo a 5 Vocum BWV 562i
Bõhm. Vater unser Im Himmelreich
Bach. Praeludium con Fuga in c BWV 546

This special Early Music Day concert contrasts two of Bach’s most powerful organ works with the music of one of his earliest influences. When he was 15, Bach became a student at the Michaelisschule in Lüneburg. Georg Böhm (1661-1733) had recently been appointed organist of the nearby Johanniskirche, the principal town church with its 1553 Hendrik Niehoff organ. The young Bach certainly knew Bõhm, and may have been a pupil of his – one of the earliest Bach manuscripts is a copy of a piece by Reinken that Bõhm owned.

Bõhm’s Partita on Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele has 11 verses (labelled as “variations”) which possibly reflect the 11 verses of the chorale. The dramatic 11th variation certainly reflects the words Rejoice greatly, o my soul. Several of the variations include French-style ornaments. What appears to be the 12th variation is in a very different trio style, and is treated as a separate piece in this recital.

The two Bach pieces are powerful examples of his mature style, and both hold considerable emotional intensity. They were played as final voluntaries during the late Queen’s funeral and committal, and BWV 546 was also played at Princess Diana’s and Prince Philip’s funerals. The richly ornamented Fantasia pro Organo a 5 Vocum, cum pedali obligato was composed in Weimar. It shows clear influence of the French music that Bach experienced in Lüneburg, notably in the extensive use of French-style ornaments Its fugal structure reflects the style of Nicolas De Grigny’s famous five-part fugues, and the short theme is almost identical to a Gloria verse in De Grigny’s 1699 Premier livre d’orgue which Bach copied out. It has a particularly impressive final few bars. An unfinished fugue was added in 1745, but may not be by Bach.

Bõhm’s highly ornamented chorale prelude on the Lutheran Lord’s Prayer, Vater unser Im Himmelreich, is in five voices with the chorale melody in the treble over a complex accompaniment. The pedal line is marked forte. The frequent ornaments are distinctly French in style

The monumental Bach Praeludium con Fuga in c shows the influence of Italian music, notably in the massive concerto-like ritornello structure of the Praeludium with its exclamatory opening chords. It continues with contrasts between powerful homophonic statements and contrapuntal episodes, notably a stately slow stepwise rising theme that first appears beneath the flowing triplets and becomes fugal in its evolving structure. The fugue is more straightforward in its construction but contains some inventive contrapuntal ideas. The Praeludium certainly seems to come from his mature Leipzig days, but the simpler Fugue is earlier, and may once have been paired with the Fantasia played earlier.

© Andrew Benson-Wilson 2023

Andrew Benson-Wilson
specialises in the performance of early organ music, ranging from 14th century manuscripts to the late Classical period. His playing is informed by experience of historic organs, understanding of period performance techniques and several internationally renowned teachers. The first of his two CDs of the complete Tallis organ works was Gramophone Magazine ‘Record of the Month’. The Organists’ Review commented that his “understanding of the historic English organ and its idiom is thorough, and the beautifully articulated, contoured result here is sufficient reason for hearing this disk. He is a player of authority in this period of keyboard music”.

Andrew’s concerts have ranged from the enormous 1642 Festorgel organ in Klosterneuburg Abbey in Austria to a tiny 1668 chamber organ in a medieval castle in Croatia, via St John’s, Smith Square. According to one reviewer, his St John’s, Smith Square recital was “one of the most rewarding organ recitals heard in London in years – an enthralling experience”. Other concerts have included return visits to the 1723 Hildebrandt organ in Störmthal, Leipzig (where Bach gave the opening recital) and the famous 1558 Ebert organ in Innsbruck’s Hofkirche.

Andrew’s little book “The Performance of Early Organ Music” is used as a required text in a number of Universities. After 20 years as the principal concert and organ CD reviewer for Early Music Review magazine, Andrew now reviews on his own website:

Andrew’s next London recitals are an all-Handel concert for The Handel Friends on Tuesday 25 April (7.30) in St George’s Hanover Square as a farewell to the ‘Handel’ chamber organ before it is moved to The Handel House Museum.
That is followed by two recitals commemorating the 400th anniversary of William Byrd’s death in July 1623: Sunday 9 July (7.45) in Christ’s Chapel of God’s Gift at Dulwich (Byrd’s World – music from the time of Byrd), and on Tuesday 1 August (1.10) in St George’s Hanover Square (Byrd and Bull).