SEON - Philips
2 LPs - 6775 001 - (p) 1973
2 LPs - RL 30382 - (p) 1980
2 CDs - SB2K 63185 - (c) 1997


Johann Sebastian BACH (1985-1750) Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 547
10' 27" A1

Prelude and Fugue in B Minor, BWV 544 *
13' 45" A2

Fuga sopra il Magnificat, BWV 733

4' 27" B1

Canonic Variations on "Von Himmel hoch, da komm' ich her", BWV 769

15' 10" B2

Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 533 *
5' 37" C1

Prelude and Fugue in E Minor, BWV 548
16' 29" C2

From the "18 Leipzig Chorales":

- O Lamm Gottes unschuldig, BWV 656 *
9' 07" D1

- Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 *
5' 08" D2

- Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658
5' 34" D3

- Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit, BWV 668 (Cantus firmus im Sopran (Bricht im 26, Takt ab)
5' 42" D4

Gustav Leonhardt, at the Christiaan Müller Organ of the "Waalse Kerk" Amsterdam, built 1733/34

Luogo e data di registrazione
Gennaio 1972

Registrazione: live / studio

Producer / Recording Supervisor
Wolf Erichson

Recording Engineer

Dieter Thomsen

Prima Edizione LP
Seon (Philips) | 6775 001 | 2 LPs - durata 43' 49" - 47' 37" | (p) 1973 | ANA
Seon (RCA Red Seal) | RL 30382 | 2 LPs - durata 43' 49" - 47' 37" | (p) 1980 | ANA

Edizione CD
Sony | SB2K 63185 | 2 CDs - durata 70' 11" - 77' 34" | (c) 1997 | ADD

Original Cover

Jacob Schübler - Große Kirchenorgel, nach I. N. Steidlin

I brani contrassegnati con (*) asterisco non sono stati riversati in questo doppio CD il quale contiene anche brani di altra pubblicazione (Seon 6775 018).

Johann Sebastian Bach's fame as a composer and virtuoso instrumentalist was primarily founded on his organ playing. In his obituary he was described as “the greatest organist and keyboard player that ever lived.” Certainly in the 18th century he had no equal as an organist. His playing was consummate in every respect: his mastery of the art of extemporization, his use of the pedal - which quite astonished his contemporaries, and his skilful registration. As an inspector of organs, too, Bach was highly esteemed - and also feared. “His examinations were very strict, but always fair,” wrote Forkel, the first Bach biographer (1802), who was in the fortunate position of having the direct reports and judgements of Bach's own sons and pupils. Carried out in the district of Thuringia-Saxony, it was in fact these organ inspections, involving an obligatory “test” concert, that showed most vividly “again and again, that Bach was truly the prince of organists and keyboard players” (Forkel). Bach owed his utter familiarity with the organ to the fact that his daily routine had nearly always revolved around this “king of instruments”. Even during the period he spent as court capellmeister at Cöthen (1717-23), when he had regularly to produce chamber music and orchestral works, he never neglected the organ. Important compositions from this inspired period, such as the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, the “Dorian” Toccata and Fugue or the Passacaglia in C minor, provide eloquent proof of this. Thus his organ works, be they free compositions or allied to chorales, spread themselves pretty evenly over the 50-odd years of Bach's creative life. In them we can follow the various stages of development, from the musical models of his youth, via the “Sturm und Drang” period of the Weimar years, when he struggled to find his own individual idiom, to the various phases of artistic maturity.
In the field of free organ compositions Bach revised the prelude/fantasia and fugue combination, modelling it more on the recitative and aria form. Instead of the loose, extemporized nature of his predecessors' works, Bach aimed at a more homogeneous shape for the individual movements. The prelude was to serve as a preparation; the fugue was the real nucleus of the work. The emotional content of the fugue sprang essentially from the pregnant depths of its main subject. Written in 1709 in Weimar, or perhaps even earlier, the Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV 533, shows the young composer seeking new paths. We find that the Prelude is thematically closely related to the Fugue, but that Buxtehude's fanciful organ style - “shaken” chords, toccata-like passages and pedal leaps - still echoes through. The immediate impact that this music has, the exciting progress of events coupled with virtuosity, gives glimpses of the mature artist even at this early stage, and in spite of occasional imperfections in the form. But what superb mastery is displayed in the companion work in E minor (BWV 548)! Composed during the late Leipzig period, the work is monumental, both in respect of its external proportions and its inner stature. Bound by pretty harsh restrictions during the Prelude - uniform thematic material and a pedal point - the music is then released into one of the boldest and freest fugues Bach ever wrote. The Fugue is constructed in three sections, with an initial fugal section, a toccata-like middle section, and then a complete recapitulation of the first section, and represents a wholely successful attempt to combine three essentially heterogeneous elements: the fugue, the toccata, and the concerto.
The other two free organ compositions on this recording also date from the late Leipzig period. Bach always associated the key of B minor (BWV 544) with the sanctified sphere of suffering and death. The poignant lyricism of the Prelude is reminiscent of the melismatic “Erbarme dich" ("Have mercy") aria from the Matthew Passion, whereas the chromatic sequences could have been taken from the first Kyrie section of the B minor Mass. As far as content is concerned the Prelude and the Fugue form an entity. The Fugue, again constructed on a grand scale and divided into three sections, develops out of an unpretentious theme, which, in the middle section, is joined by a further theme, derived from the second obbligato counterpoint. Bach himself obviously cherished this particular work, for he wrote out the original manuscript with the utmost care - it is one of the most beautiful he ever wrote.
The Prelude and Fugue in C major (BWV 547) is on quite a different emotional plane, one of joyful, festive expectancy. In the opening movement we hear the familiar carillon motive from the organ chorale "In dir ist Freude" ("In Thee is joy") resounding in the pedal; there are also obvious thematic connections with the lively opening chorus of Cantata No. 65 "Sie werdrn aus Saba alle kommen" ("All they from Sheba shall come"). The work is written in a highly concentrated manner, with closcly woven counterpoint - a typical feature of Bach's late syle. The fugue subject appears no fewer than 50 times in its original form, in inversion, stretto and augmented! Bach delays bringing in the pedal until the fifth entry, at which point the fugue subject appears simultaneously in the bass - in augmented time-values - and piled up above it in the upper voices, thus creating a tremendous clash of dissonances, which only gradually resolves itself. This work in particular is a striking example of Bach's endeavours to exalt the prelude and fugue as a form, both from a spiritual and from a technical point of view.
Hardly less important than the free organ compositions are the organ compositions allied to particular chorales. Closely connected with the text of the chorale tune on which it is based, this type of organ composition became, in the hands of Bach, an esoteric work of art. Basically the work serves to interpret the chosen text, and to this end Bach employs the language of musical symbolism, “leading motives” and symbolic musical constructions, as well as musical devices that depict specific emotions.
Bach based his “Fuga sopra il Magnificat” (BWV 733), written in Weimar, on St. Luke's Gospel chapter 1, 46-47 (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”), creating a freely fugal piece full of invention and stimulating rhythms. In the “Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch” (BWV 769; 1746/47), written close to the end of his life, a popular German Christmas carol attains great heights of spiritualization in a series of increasingly sophisticated variations. In Bach's autograph copy we find two variations set before and two after a contrapuntally intricate centrepiece in which the cantus firmus itself is presented canonically in four different ways. Music tending to such abstraction does not immediately reveal its profundity and uniqueness to the listener. The four chorale preludes recorded here are taken from an autograph collection of “Eighteen Chorales” dating from the last year of Bach's life, in which the composer, looking back with the wisdom of old age, attempts to summarize his work, examining, ordering, reviewing the fruits of his labours. Some of the pieces go back as fast as the early Weimar years. “O Lamm Gottes” (BWV 656) grows from dreamy beginnings into a powerful proclamation of faith; the old advent hymn “Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland” (BWV 659) is woven into a thick web of imitative work; “Von Gott Will ich” (BWV 658) has the cantus firmus in the pedal. Bach was physically too weak to finish writing the manuscript. Overtaken by blindness he dictated to his son-in-law Altnikol his last great profession of faith: “Vor deinen Thron tret' ich” (“I step before Thy throne”), BWV 668, a chorale dating from the Weimar period, which flows along melodiously in peaceful tranquility. In the 26th bar he had to break off- his legacy was complete. We owe the finished version of this chorale prelude to Bach's son C. P. E. Bach.
Lothar Hoffmann-Erbrecht
English translation by Avril Watts