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The best recordings of JS Bach’s Orgelbüchlein

Paul Riley chooses the finest recordings of Bach’s collection of intricately crafted organ preludes, Bach's Orgelbüchlein

JS Bach's Orgelbüchlein

JS Bach was in his early 20s when began work on the Orgelbüchlein. He had recently become organist at the court in Weimar after two years at the Blasius Church in Mühlhausen and would remain there until 1717, gaining a promotion to Konzertmeister (director of music) along the way though eventually falling out with his employer. Keyboard and orchestral works plus a handful of early cantatas dominated his output during a nine-year period that also saw his first wife, Maria Barbara, bear seven children, though tragically three  died in infancy.

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It’s in the nature of completists that no one embarks on a project recording the entire Orgelbüchlein without a great deal of thought, so it’s no surprise that a strong field proves hard to whittle down – musically there’s much unanimity. And what the instrument enables a performer to realise – practically as well as aesthetically – is more than usually important. Perhaps mechanical limitations hobble a performer’s preferred tempo, or weaknesses in the pedal department leave a prelude under-supported. And then there’s the tremulant. Does it add a gently undulating pathos, or bleat as if imitating a Wurlitzer?

The best recording of JS Bach’s Orgelbüchlein

David Goode

Signum Classics SGCD 812

Built in 1976, the Metzler organ at Trinity College, Cambridge has proved a magnet for organists wanting to record Bach. And to it David Goode has entrusted all 16 volumes of his survey of the ‘complete’ organ works. It’s easy to see why. Tonally it’s a good fit, and mechanically it comes with none of the hazards a recalcitrant historic instrument might throw up. It even includes pipework from around the time that Bach composed the first chorale preludes that eventually found a home in the Orgelbüchlein. Goode, incidentally, isn’t alone in having a soft spot for Metzler – Christopher Herrick’s Bach series on Hyperion is also an all-Metzler affair, spread over several instruments in the company’s native Switzerland.

Bach didn’t conceive the collection to be played at a sitting, and in theory there’s no arc to be described, seeing the collection is incomplete; yet Goode contrives the illusion of a satisfying design (as do Farr and Böhme, above). There’s a flow that is anchored by well-chosen tempos, enlivened by artful registration, articulated through a grasp of Bach’s structural ingenuities and mindful of the relationship between unuttered words and music.

Goode might take a slightly less spacious view than some of the incomparable ‘O Mensch bewein’ (the collection’s longest chorale prelude) and ‘Ich ruf zu dir’, but a plangent tremulous keening bids farewell to the old year (BWV614) while New Year’s Day (‘In Dir ist Freude’) is rung in with a thunderous peal of unconfined joy – the pedal reeds respond readily to Goode’s incisive footwork. Thoroughly assimilated, each prelude inhabits its own space. But while every detail is weighed, every contrapuntal gesture plotted, there’s a spontaneity that delights in BWV 607’s murmuration of angels’ wings, and imbues the tail-chasing canons of ‘In dulci jubilo’ with festive good cheer.

Three other great recordings of JS Bach’s Orgelbüchlein

Ullrich Böhme

(Querstand VKJK0603)

As the organist of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche for the past 35 years, Böhme presided over the building of the building’s ‘Bach organ’ in 2000. Based on a specification by Bach’s uncle Johann Christian, it boasts pedigree and location, neither of which would count for anything without Böhme’s instinctive feel for the music’s rhetorical integrity. The Lutheran chorale ethos is in his blood and he interrogates each miniature with acuity. Included is the tantalising two-bar fragment ‘O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid’; and ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ is gilded with tinkling glockenspiel. 

René Saorgin

(Harmonia Mundi HMA1951215)

Recorded in 1982 on the 17th-century organ of the former Burgundian Abbey of Luxeuil, Saorgin’s account has worn its years lightly. Completed shortly before Bach’s birth, the Luxeuil instrument has an irresistible pungency, and Saorgin exploits it with flairful registrations. Never over-reverential, he can be robust without compromising expressiveness, though if a flutey ‘In dulci jubilo’ sounds as if too much Christmas pudding has been consumed, the leisurely tempo affords maximum intelligibility for Bach’s intricate canons. 

Stephen Farr

(Resonus Classics RES10259)

Released earlier this year, Farr’s account also enlists a historic instrument, but one that opens a window onto the sort of sounds Bach knew. Trost was an organ-builder Bach respected, and the capacious organ of Waltershausen’s Stadtkirche was built during the composer’s first years in Leipzig. If some pipes don’t always speak promptly, it’s a price worth paying as Farr revels in its intimate possibilities, shaping everything
with attentiveness and insight.

Read our review of the recording here

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And one to avoid…

It would be hard to fault James Lancelot’s impeccably considered Orgelbüchlein on musical grounds. And for those allergic to the sometimes exultantly abrasive sounds of a Baroque instrument, the Willis/Harrison organ of Durham Cathedral will afford a degree of well-rounded relief. But while Lancelot is right to argue that Bach’s music transcends its medium, in fulsome registrations, some of the clarity and character is compromised by the instrument’s romantic ‘English’ voicings.

Find out more about JS Bach and his works here

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Read more reviews of the latest JS Bach recordings  here