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Hyperion Records

CDA66434 - Bach: Toccatas and Fugues
Porch of Ratisbon (Regensburg) Cathedral by Samuel Prout (1783-1852)

Recording details: May 1990
Stadtkirche, Zofingen, Switzerland
Produced by Paul Spicer
Engineered by Paul Niederberger
Release date: December 1990
Total duration: 63 minutes 14 seconds

'Stupendous organ sound … one of the three Bach CDs I will turn to over and over again for sheer enjoyment' (Gramophone)

'If you only have one disc of organ music in your collection this must be it' (The Good CD Guide)

'Masterly interpretations' (Organists' Review)

'Authoritative performances, impeccable technique, brilliant recorded sound—a winner' (Church Music Quarterly)

Toccatas and Fugues
Toccata  [2'51]
Fugue  [5'53]
Toccata  [5'54]
Adagio  [4'38]
Fugue  [4'30]
Toccata  [8'44]
Fugue  [5'10]
Toccata  [5'08]
Fugue  [7'17]
Passacaglia  [7'30]
Fugue  [5'39]
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The Bach organ works recorded here may all be said to stand apart from the types of music for organ associated with use in a liturgical context. Bach’s list of instructions for the service order in Leipzig in 1723, and other contemporary documents, show the organist, as would be expected, introducing (or ‘preluding’ before) the chorales, and playing further ‘preludes’ in alternation with the sung verses. Other opportunities for solo organ playing were as introductions to the choral parts of the service—motets and cantatas—the purpose of this last being picturesquely described by Mattheson in 1720 as to fix the ensuing pitch in the minds of the singers, and to allow the players, under the cover of the organ sound, to tune their instruments. There is less precise reference to the possibility (regular or occasional) of organ music opening and closing the three-and-a-half to four hours which made up the main Leipzig service during Bach’s cantorship. We can see here, then, a regular use of more than one chorale prelude in each such service, and a less clearly regular opportunity for extended preludes and fugues (played either separately or together). While Bach transcended and expanded everything that he touched, we should remember that he himself had fallen foul of the Arnstadt authorities in 1706 for making his accompaniments to chorales too complicated for the congregation to follow and that, in the previous year at Leipzig (eighteen years before Bach’s appointment there) there were warnings against the organ prelude before the Communion becoming too long. It is unlikely, therefore, that such flamboyant, extended, and technically demanding works as the four Toccatas and the Passacaglia would have found an easy place in such an austere liturgical context. However, by 1745, five years before Bach’s death, fashions may have been changing, for Scheibe in his Der Critische Musikus describes the organist’s opportunity, and ample time, to show off his abilities both before and after the service.

For what purpose, then, were these pieces written? Given that Buxtehude’s evening concerts (Abendmusiken) in Lübeck, to which Bach journeyed to learn in the winter of 1705/6, were the exception rather than the rule, the only occasions when an organist was officially required to perform in concert conditions were as a candidate in competition for an appointment or at the testing and opening of a new instrument; certainly the ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue, BWV538, was used by Bach in the latter capacity in September 1732 at Cassel, and as early as 1703 (when he was eighteen) he combined both activities with success at Arnstadt by ‘examining’ the organ with such proficiency that he himself was appointed the new organist. Throughout his life, Bach was in regular demand as the examiner of new instruments, and it was in large measure through this activity that his fame as a virtuoso player with an original and piquant command of registration spread. What better music could Bach have designed for such purposes than these many-sectioned pieces with their ample opportunity for display—pedal solos, manual dexterity, textural variety, contrapuntal virtuosity, as well as exploration of an instruments potential—emphasis on departments both individually and in tandem, opportunities for frequent registrational changes, from blend-searching light combinations to a densely-textured pleno to challenge any wind supply. In this connection, it should be remembered that in the Germany of Bach’s time (and also today) it was accepted practice to employ a registrant to assist in varying the tonal spectrum, and this tradition has been followed in the present recording.

Within this small group of works it is easy to see the extent to which Bach assimilated, enriched, and synthesized the formal antecedents and national styles which fell under his gaze. North German methods were culled early, from his friendship with Böhm at Lüneburg and from Reincken in Hamburg (1700–2), and Buxtehude (1705–6), while the proximity of Celle to Lüneburg introduced him to the French music in favour there, an interest sustained by Bach into his Weimar years where he copied de Grigny’s organ works, and the Applicatio, BWV994, reproduces ornaments after d’Anglebert. In youth Bach had copied extensively the South German repertory of Froberger, Kerll, and Pachelbel, while, apart from the copy of Frescobaldi’s Fiori Musicali (1635) which he had signed in 1714, the cultivation of the Italian concerto at the Weimar court was especially catalytic.

All the works recorded here, except the probably earlier Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565, originated in Bach’s Weimar years (1708–17), although at least some of them may have been revised even after his arrival in Leipzig in 1723; at Weimar he had the greatest opportunities of his career as an organist, with a supportive patron and fine instruments at his disposal. The famous D minor work (BWV565), is unusual in that it is formed of two toccatas framing a light-textured fugue relying on episodes based on sometimes as much as a thrice-repeated double-echo system, and much of the figuration lends credence to the theory that it may even have been arranged for organ (by Bach) from an original thought to be for violin (though not necessarily by Bach). The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue, BWV564, clearly a more mature work (but with again the fugue as its least concentrated part), reveals a masterly synthesis of German and Italian styles—the section after the introductory dialogue for manuals and pedals juxtaposing thematic material clearly derived from Reincken and concerto principles, for example. The Passacaglia, BWV582, in reality both a gigantic set of variations and a close-knit prelude and fugue of masterly graduations of tension, takes its theme from a French liturgical verset by Raison.

In these many-sectioned works, Bach’s architectural grasp is so intuitive that, given a near-consistent metric pulse throughout, a close and cumulative relationship between the sections is realised, which far transcends the seeming inconsequence of much toccata writing of his time. The huge structures of the F major, BWV540, and ‘Dorian’ D minor, BWV538, Toccatas and Fugues are handled differently; in each case, a set of opposing ideas in the opening movement precedes a particularly closely-argued fugue. The toccata of BWV540 relies on canonic imitation and harmonic surprise (its interrupted cadence is nearly as spectacular as that in the coda of BWV582), while that of BWV538 is based on concerto-like manual dialogue. By contrast, the F major ends with the only instance in Bach’s organ works of a double fugue in which each of two subjects is fully worked before combining triumphantly in the final section, while in the D minor fugue a complexity of canonic writing and richness of harmony combine in a seemingly effortless intellectual and musical tour de force.

Robin Langley © 1990

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