Bach in Freiberg

Recording a cover disc for BBC Music Magazine

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I recently spent a few days in Freiberg, helping with a recording of a rather special cover disc for BBC Music Magazine, heading your way in early 2011.

Freiberg itself (about 45 minutes south-west by train from Dresden) is charming enough with its historic centre, city wall and fine beer, but the reason I was there lay within the majestic cathedral that dominates one of the city’s two main squares.

Freiberg Cathedral is fortunate to house the most authentic Silbermann organ anywhere in Europe – and therefore the world. And, as readers may well know by now, I’m rather partial to this kind of thing.

Built in 1714, the three-manual masterpiece was tidied up and slightly altered in 1739 and has since remained relatively untouched to this day. Even the trackers (the wooden strips that effectively connect the keys to the pipes) are original and, if you and couple of friends are feeling energetic, the organ can still be pumped by hand – or by foot, to be more accurate.

The organ also retains its distinctive ancient meantone tuning (albeit slightly modified to allow some performance, at least, of more modern repertoire) which gives the more remote keys a bit of a spicy edge.

In any case, reworking the entire instrument to the well-tempered tuning system may well have been an impossible task as much of the 18th-century pipework may not have stood up to the challenge. 

So to find an organ of such historic importance in such good nick is rare. In fact, almost unheard of. Many historically important German organs were destroyed in the Second World War, but probably an equal number were fiddled with over the centuries to suit churchgoers’ and organists’ changing musical needs. You can’t play Reger or Messiaen on an ancient organ, so the thinking would probably have gone, but you can still play Bruhns, Buxtehude, Böhm and Bach on a modified instrument.

So what were we recording in Freiberg? Nothing less than a CD of JS Bach’s greatest organ works, performed immaculately by David Goode.

From the Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C to the Passacaglia in C minor, with some of the most notable chorale preludes in between (including 'Vater Unser' from Clavierübung III and ‘O Mensch, bewein’ from the Orgelbüchlein), the programme shows off the instrument’s tone colours to full effect, demonstrates Bach’s endless invention, while giving David something of a workout in the process.

We’ll be posting a short film and a podcast interview with David nearer to the date of publication in early 2011 (probably March or April issue), so only six or so months to go...

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine