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Hyperion Records

CDA66791/2 - Bach: The Great Fantasias, Preludes & Fugues

Recording details: April 1993
Jesuitenkirche, Lucerne, Switzerland
Produced by Paul Spicer
Engineered by Paul Niederberger
Release date: October 1993
Total duration: 146 minutes 42 seconds


'Yet another yardstick release from what seems to be an unbeatable team … I suspect I have already found my record of the year' (Gramophone)

'As emotionally compelling as it is authoritative. The instrument is ideal for the repertoire and it is superbly recorded' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Herrick's musical inspiration, matched by his technique, does full justice to this pinnacle of the organ repertoire' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)

The Great Fantasias, Preludes & Fugues
Fantasia  [6'03]
Fugue  [5'55]
Prelude  [3'35]
Fugue  [6'10]
Prelude  [4'54]
Fugue  [6'11]
Prelude  [5'49]
Fugue  [5'07]
Prelude  [3'06]
Fugue  [4'22]
Prelude  [9'37]
Fugue  [6'57]
Prelude  [6'22]
Fugue  [6'03]
Prelude  [6'13]
Fugue  [7'36]
Prelude  [4'12]
Fugue  [4'57]
Prelude  [3'41]
Fugue  [4'42]
Fantasia  [4'49]
Fugue  [3'49]
Prelude  [1'49]
Fugue  [4'30]
Prelude  [2'08]
Fugue  [3'51]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
Supreme master of the fugue that he became, Bach did not win this mastery easily. The transformation from angular faceless subjects and paragraphs that cadence too frequently, to the seamless ever-developing textures made from characterfully shaped melodic subjects achieved by observation, experience, and applied intellectual power, is as astonishing as the variety of the fugue subjects themselves. Indeed, German writers divide Bach’s developing fugal style into four main types: the Spielfuge, the dance fugue, the allabreve, and the art fugue.

The first, in which purely instrumental shapes and fragments are disciplined into relatively loose fugal structures, where the virtuoso element is strong and there is considerable reliance on lengthy episodes, is represented here by BWV532, 541, 542 and 548. The dance fugue finds the subject characteristically rhythmical (BWV536, 543) but shares also the purely instrumental devices of the Spielfuge, especially sequence both rhythmic and figurative. With the allabreve fugue we see an altogether more serious intellectual intent; the nature of the smoother, more vocally orientated subjects admits a regular use of up to five parts (often with two subjects), a wider harmonic palette derived from the greater use of suspensions, and closer-knit episodes, as we see here in BWV534, 537, 545 and 546. The final category, the art fugue, achieves the zenith of contrapuntal strictness and ingenuity in which, in the words of Marpurg, ‘nothing other than the theme is elaborated … all the remaining counterpoint and interludes are drawn from the theme or counter theme’. Bach’s Art of Fugue abounds in this style and in the organ music here we find a particularly magnificent example in BWV547. Other fugues, of course, may be seen to combine elements of more than one of these types, and the masterly synthesis of styles achieved with the approach of maturity is clear in BWV544 and 552.

The prelude, too, whether based on the many-sectioned rhetoric of the north, the sequential figuration of the south, or powerful five-part writing from France, became a personal synthesis of styles within a greatly increased spectrum of different formal devices, and, in the end, the prelude and its fugue were written for, and entirely complementary to, each other, which was by no means the case as Bach developed his handling of the form, revising either prelude or fugue, adding new preludes to old fugues, and the like.

What, then, did Bach write these works for, and what did he expect them to sound like? While the present-day notion of organ music before and after a church service was not as widespread in eighteenth-century Germany, there is some evidence of a rather limited tradition (Scheibe of Hamburg mentions it in 1745), though not necessarily in those parts of Germany where Bach was active. Mattheson seems to imply one in 1739 (but in a book published in, again, Hamburg): ‘As for fugue playing, there are two types. The first type of theme … comes from the chorale melody itself. The second type concerns the prelude or postlude, in which the fugue acts as either a part or an ending.’ It is quite possible that Bach did not regard his preludes and fugues as having any part in the music he was daily preparing for service use because, unlike the chorale preludes and cantatas, he left no organized groups or collections of them. Nonetheless, there was a widespread tradition of organ (or other instrumental or vocal) music after Saturday Vespers, besides, in Bach’s case, the occasions on which he gave recitals as part of his proving of a new organ, or on demand at either public recitals (of which six are documented between 1720 and 1747) or private gatherings. Certainly, although he held no official position as organist after leaving Weimar in 1717, Bach maintained an active interest in the prelude (or fantasia) and fugue form, not only composing new examples in Leipzig, but revising and retouching old ones there.

As to sound, the existing descriptions of Bach’s own playing outside the environment of a service suggest that he began invariably with a prelude and fugue for loud organ. Indeed, of the thirteen preludes and fugues presented here, eight indicate ‘organo pleno’ in one or other of their sources. This, however, is not as helpful as it sounds, for unlike the French grand jeu and petit jeu, the German pleno is nowhere codified precisely, and, if it were, Bach’s individual treatment of the organ’s tonal palette would lead us to think it mistaken to follow the norm, given C P E Bach’s description of his playing: ‘No one understood so well as he the art of registration. Often organists were terrified when he wished to play on their organs and drew the stops in his manner, since they believed it could not possibly sound well in the way he wanted; but little by little they heard an effect that amazed them. These sciences died with him.’ Clearly a variety of imaginative and even unconventional colour is required, but whether this is achieved by changing manuals is another difficult question. Certainly Bach expected changes of manual sometimes. He asks for them in the Prelude BWV552 and the two strongly contrasted ideas in the Fantasia BWV542 invite them, but there are many instances, especially in the closer-wrought fugues, where it seems possible to travel to a secondary manual only to find no musical moment at which it is digitally possible to return. Again, Bach often achieves a change of colour by altering the density of the texture or character of the writing in such a way as to admit, in addition, changes in the type of articulation that can be employed. Colour, then, in whichever of the many ways it could be achieved, is central to a Bachian performance of these multi-faceted large works, but how this is achieved is, as is so often the case in Bach, ultimately left to the player’s resource.

Turning to the music itself, it is not known when the fantasia from the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV542 became associated with the loosely constructed virtuoso pedal fugue which tradition has it Bach played to Buxtehude’s contemporary Reincken in Hamburg in 1720; its tuneful subject, very similar to a Dutch folktune, was used as a test in extempore fugal playing in the same city five years later. ‘The best of Bach’s pedal pieces’, wrote an early copyist at the end of it, and few could quarrel with his enthusiasm. The splendour of the fantasia, both aural and intellectual, would seem to indicate that it was written a good deal later; certainly the two contrasted ideas—mighty chords and rhetorical flourishes, and expressive, thoughtful counterpoint—are executed with masterly ease.

If that concept is essentially North German, the Fantasia in C minor, BWV562 could not be more French-inspired. As a boy, Bach had transcribed Nicolas de Grigny’s Livre d’Orgue and the opening idea here is close to that of the first fugue for the Gloria in that volume. Further, the layout of the four manual voices in pairs is similar to other de Grigny movements, where the two hands (each in two parts) are registered differently over a continuo pedal bass. Bach further adds to the illusion with his copious ornamentation. The five-part fugue intended to follow this fantasia breaks off after 27 bars and is not included in this recording.

The A minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV543, dating from the later Weimar years (1716/7), shows how confidently Bach has built on the typical devices of Buxtehude, pacing the incident to ensure forward momentum and tightening the progression of the rich harmony. The extensive dance fugue that follows not only dissolves in a showy virtuoso flourish, but the pedal part is exceptionally active throughout, though not as markedly so as in the D major Prelude and Fugue, BWV532, that follows. Dating from 1709 or earlier, it shares, with a number of other early (or early versions of) preludes and fugues, an inter-connecting adagio between the two. Here the structure is taken a stage further, with a free toccata (to announce the key) introducing a brisk patterned, rather Italian movement, before a markedly powerful sequence of harmony, with double pedal, to close. The Spielfuge, again borrowing elements from Buxtehude, is chiefly remarkable for its unflagging energy and supremely virtuoso pedal part; surely it was this piece which inspired the contemporary comment that Bach’s feet flew across the pedals as birds on the wing.

From the exuberant practical virtuosity of youth we turn to the intellectual virtuosity of maturity in one of the most original of the last great preludes and fugues from the Leipzig years, the Prelude and Fugue in B minor, BWV544. The prelude, in an advanced and highly decorated Rococo style, combines grace and grandeur in an individual marriage between the older fugal techniques and the newer expressive harmony induced by frequent appoggiature. The fugue, particularly closely crafted and on two subjects, achieves over and above the contrapuntal ingenuity an inevitability of growth and profundity of thought remarkable even for Bach. Also dating from (a little earlier in) the Leipzig years (1724/5) is the Vivaldian G major Prelude and Fugue, BWV541, and like that in B minor it seems clear that both movements were written at the same time and for each other. Here the pulsing chords of the prelude presage the repeated note and gruppetto of the fugue’s subject, which is turned to good account in stretto both before and after the dramatic pause that announces the coda.

When, in 1739, Bach published his Clavierübung Part III, he flanked a miscellaneous collection of liturgical settings, chorale preludes and duos with a monumental prelude at the beginning of the volume and tripartite fugue at the end. The Prelude and Fugue in E flat major, BWV552 were not always connected to each other. Although in the same key, and indeed copied as separate works in the eighteenth century, it was only in the early nineteenth, and with the specific advocacy of Mendelssohn, that they were performed in sequence as a pair. The prelude, one of the two largest Bach wrote for organ, is a masterly mixture of stately French and concertante Italian elements, while the fugue (treating the three subjects successively in three different metres and in three different combinations) is based on a theme in common currency whose fortuitous closeness to Croft’s hymn tune ‘St Anne’ has attracted that name (in English-speaking countries at least); Bach, if he knew the tune at all, might have come across it in Handel’s use of it in the Chandos Anthem ‘O praise the Lord with one consent’.

On 8 May 1747 Bach gave a recital on the Wagner organ in the Heiligegeistkirche, Potsdam. The Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV547, dating from around 1744, is the last of his works in the genre and may well have been performed on that occasion. The lilting prelude, over an ostinato bass figure, has melodic connections with Cantata 65 (1724), while the fugue is one of the most concentrated he wrote, replete with contrapuntal devices all stemming from the material of the first bar. A supreme climax is engendered by the very late entry of the pedals in augmentation, a series of declamatory chords (looking back to those in the prelude), and a notably long tonic pedal coda.

From some thirty years earlier comes the F minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV534, an uneven work of powerful moments vitiated by some technical miscalculations, but there is no denying the majesty of the prelude’s springing manual figures over striding pedal scales nor the serious and thorough working of an early example of the allabreve fugue, with its typically anguished drooping diminished 7th in the subject. Another, and more successful, allabreve fugue from the same period is that from the Prelude and Fugue in C minor, BWV546. The prelude to which it is attached shows signs of dating from at least 1730, around which time Bach was showing an interest in the da capo principle in his organ works (the first page of this powerful prelude is repeated to close it). The richness, especially, of the triplet figuration, and the ritornello form, also point to the composer’s mature Leipzig years. But that Bach was capable of great harmonic richness (even if less consistently organized) not only in his maturity is seen in the central section of the Fantasia in G major, BWV572. Dating from 1705/7, and also known as Pièce d’Orgue, this three-sectioned piece is remarkable for the consistency with which the single idea that comprises each section is pursued. A toccata of patterned chords, and a coda of acciaccatura-strewn broken chords, enclose a French-influenced panoply of continuously eliding five-part harmony.

With the great E minor Prelude and Fugue, BWV548 we return once more to the small group of late Leipzig pieces. In common with the majority of them, the two movements are designed together (as the autograph shows); the majestic and seamless progress of the prelude’s plethora of ideas contrasts with a da capo fugue whose ‘wedge’-shaped subject is as original as the long virtuoso episode which forms the central section. The fugue from the C minor Fantasia and Fugue, BWV537, an excellently wrought allabreve example with a chromatically rising second subject, shows Bach experimenting with da capo elements even in his late Weimar years (1716/7), while the accompanying fantasia forms a perfect foil with its deeply expressive, pliant imitation evolving over long-held pedal points. The same gentleness informs the A major Prelude and Fugue, BWV536 from the same period. The Buxtehudian prelude is graceful rather than forthright, while the dance fugue, with its unusual accents and suspensions, has an almost feminine lightness.

The final Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV545 has a particularly complex history, not only appearing in another form in B flat, but having had, on two occasions, two different slow movements inserted between prelude and fugue; in turn, each of these was subjected to revision and improvement. In their present shape, where a fresh, early conception is complemented by maturity in the handling of detail, they display both concise and masterly treatment of their material.

Robin Langley © 1993

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