Bach: Complete Organ Works

COMPOSERS: Bach
LABELS: Decca London
WORKS: Complete Organ Works
PERFORMER: Peter Hurford (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: 444 410-2 ADD/DDD (1976-90)
It seems not long ago that I reviewed Marie-Claire Alain’s complete survey of Bach’s organ works in these pages (February 1995), and comparisons with Decca’s new and long-overdue compilation of Peter Hurford’s Bach recordings from the Seventies and Eighties show just how wide the net of Bach interpretation is cast among organists. Through his recordings, Hurford largely pioneered the modern-day ‘English tradition’ of Bach playing, with the emphasis on lively tempi, clear articulation and a restrained use of ornamentation. At die time, this came as a refreshing antidote to die heavy, prosaic recordings of such continental organists as Karl Richter and Helmut Walcha.

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A facet of Hurford’s playing that consistently shines through the set is the energy and forward propulsion with which he invests the music, notably in the larger-scale works. Listen to the D major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532, ignoring die fudged opening pedal scale, as an example of Hurford’s keen sense of drama, achieved through superb control over both rhythm and musical line. The fugue is wonderfully airborne and all the better for a close recording, on this occasion at Ratzeburg Cathedral. Incidentally, all the recordings are played on modern mechanical action instruments.

Many would say that the soul of Bach’s organ music lies in the chorale preludes, and in this area of Hurford’s recordings, I am left widi mixed feelings. Many of the more introspective pieces, such as ‘O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Siinde gross’ from the Orgel-Buchlein, are treated with great tenderness, yet I often find Hurford’s registration rather cloying, his use of two-foot stops giving the upper register a sparkle that becomes wearisome after repeated listening.

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The jewel in the crown of this set, though, lies in the concertos and, even more so, in the trio sonatas, which are given performances of the utmost musicianship. As a bonus, Hurford includes chorale preludes merely attributed to Bach. Overall, the consistendy high standard of performance and recording quality places this set higher in my preference to Alain’s survey on Erato. Stephen Haylett