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.”.    Continue reading

Prom 71: Bach Night

Prom 71: Bach Night
Dunedin Consort, John Butt
Royal Albert Hall. 11 September

As part of this year’s Proms’ recognition of Henry Wood’s influence, this concert reflected his 1920s Wednesday Bach Night. The Dunedin Consort and John Butt performed Bach’s four Orchestral Suites, each paired with a short newly commissioned piece (all given world premieres) inspired by the dance movements that follow the opening Overture of each Suite. The first two Suites (4 &1) were followed by the new pieces while, after the interval, Suites (2&3) were preceded by the new commissions.

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Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8-20 Parts

Hieronymus Praetorius: Motets in 8, 10, 12, 16 & 20 Parts
Alamire, His Majestys Sagbutts and Cornetts
David Skinner, Stephen Farr
Resonus: Inventa Records. INV001. 2 CDs: 57’46 + 42’39 

I have waited years for a comprehensive recording of Hieronymus Praetorius and this one ticks all the boxes. I first got to know his organ music many years ago, finding in him a very rare example of a North German organ composer from before the generation of Sweelinck students that dominated Hamburg and North German musical life in the 17th century (of which his sons were a key part). That progression eventually led to the peak of the North German Baroque, Dieterich Buxtehude. Although there were indications of the post-Sweelinck style, his musical language was distinct, if occasionally rather impenetrable, and clearly represented an important late Renaissance style of organ composition and performance. The joy of this double CD set is that several organ pieces are included, along with some of the magnificent multi-part motets, with up to 20 independent voices. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Bach: Clavier-Übung III – Stephen Farr

J.S.Bach: Clavier-Übung III
Stephen Farr organ
The 1975 Metzler organ,Trinity College, Cambridge
Resonus Classics RES10120.  105’08

Bach’s Clavier-Übung III is one of his most important contributions to the whole organ repertoire. Published for ‘connoisseurs’ in 1739, the 27 pieces include music of the utmost intensity and contrapuntal complexity, alongside more approachable pieces such as the well-known ‘Giant’ Fugue, Wir glauben all an einen Gott. Bettina Varwig’s detailed programme notes reveal that this collection could be Bach’s defiant response to his critic, and former pupil, Scheibe who criticised him for writing in “an antiquated, bombastic style that eschewed the current taste for pleasant, natural, singable music”.  It is about as far as he could get from that new style, one taken up with gusto by his son CPE Bach.

Stephen Farr’s choice of the 1975 Metzler organ in Trinity College, Cambridge, is a good one. An early UK example of continental organs designed with Continue reading

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks
Stephen Farr, organ, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge Resonus RES10143. 68’35
William Byrd, John Bull, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, John Blitheman & Orlando Gibbons. 2013 Taylor & Boody Opus 66 organ, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.

The programme on this CD is designed to demonstrate the new 7-stop chamber organ in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.  It is designed in a 16th to early 17th century Dutch/North German style, one arguably similar to that of the English organ of the same period, about which we know very little as far as the sound is concerned.

The programme covers the English organ repertoire from about 1540 to 1637.  Tallis’s Ecce tempus idoneum and the anonymous Bina caelestis and Magnificat include chanted verses sung by the men of Sidney Sussex College Choir in the ‘alternatim’ tradition of the period.   The musical highlight is Farr’s magnificent performance of Thomas Tomkins’s monumental Offertory, at over 17 minutes long, one of the most complex examples of a uniquely English genre. It was very likely influenced by the two large-scale Tallis examples in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Stephen Farr’s control of the pulse and build up of tension in this remarkable piece is exemplary – he demonstrates similar skill in Orlando Gibbons Fantasia (the Fancy in Gam ut flat) and the concluding Byrd A Fancie, from ‘My Ladye Nevells Booke’ (1591).

Tallis himself is represented by two verses on Ecce tempus idoneaum, featuring the prominent ‘false relations’ so typical of Tallis. The earliest pieces are from the enormous British Library Add. 26669 collection, dating from around 1540/50 and later owned and annotated by Tomkins – the hymn setting of Bina caelestis and a Magnificat by an anonymous composer that could well be Thomas Preston. The secular repertoire is represented by John Bull’s Galliard ‘to the Pavin in D sol re’ and Coranto Joyeuse, the latter using the delightfully pungent Vox Virginia reed stop.

Although he allows himself an occasional flourish (notably in the anonymous Bina caelestis) Farr’s playing is methodical in a way that is entirely appropriate for recordings.  His interpretations will repay repeated listening, with no risk of annoying mannerisms.  In live performance one might expect a little more flexibility in interpretation, but such individualisms can be tricky when set in recorded stone. His articulation and touch are attractively subtle.  We can hear the occasional slight pairing of notes (for example, in track 4, John Bull’s In nomine II) but he otherwise wears his period performance credentials lightly.

The organ sounds very effective in this repertoire, and speaks into a helpful acoustic.  It is tuned in a very appropriate (but not quite meantone) temperament devised for the restoration of the famous late 17th century Schnitger organ in Norden, Germany. A reasonable solution, not least as there are several parts of the English organ repertoire of this period that can sound weird in meantone temperament, even if that could well have been the tuning of the period.  The CD notes include comprehensive essays on the music (by Magnus Williamson) and the organ (by the organ builder, George Taylor).

http://www.resonusclassics.com/organ/the-virtuoso-organist-stephen-farr

The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks

[https://andrewbensonwilson.org/2015/04/03/the-virtuoso-organist-tudor-and-jacobean-masterworks/]

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