LABELS: DG Archiv Collectors Edition
WORKS: Organ works (complete)
PERFORMER: Helmut Walcha (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 463 712-2 ADD Reissue (1956-71)
Walcha’s recordings were made over a period of 15 years: from some of the free works and The Art of Fugue at Alkmaar in 1956 to the chorale-based works from St Pierre-le-Jeune, Strasbourg, in the period 1969-71. Naturally, his Bach-playing – a revelation to many in the Fifties and Sixties – is going to be viewed differently today. His self-effacing performances will perhaps leave many now accustomed to contemporary, ‘historically aware’ performances rather cold. Some will miss rhetorical gesture in the substantial free works, be surprised by somewhat pedantic tempi, and be a little disconcerted by the motoric nature of his contrapuntal playing. But Bach’s music is, and always has been, supremely malleable in the imaginations of individual performers; for this reason, Walcha’s set must be recommended as it offers no better testimony to a practical and intellectual odyssey that very few make.
Walcha presaged future practice in his use of historical organs for these Bach recordings. In fact, it is now sometimes hard to find the Bach repertoire recorded on anything other than instruments boasting historical credentials. Out of ten instruments for his more recent complete Bach, Simon Preston has opted only for one truly historical instrument and two historically inspired reconstructions; the rest are relatively new instruments built from various aesthetic standpoints. But Bach, unlike, say, Buxtehude and other predecessors and contemporaries, still seems to be able to transgress any imaginary boundaries ‘authenticity’ has bequeathed: as long as the textures remain clear, the universal and seemingly ahistorical Bach appears – as Preston proves here – to be effective on a variety of instruments. That said, the strength of the set is Preston’s playing on the historical Trondheim instrument, perhaps because of the performer’s ability to manage so musically its specification, action, temperament and winding. But Preston’s playing is always convincing, and for anyone interested in the performer’s journey through the organ works of Bach and the decisions that have to be made along the way, this set is also to be recommended.