The Bach Project splendidly under way on the St Paul’s Cathedral organ

The Bach Project at Saint Paul’s

Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley (organists)

Programme No 6 – played by Richard Apperley

Organ chorale: ‘O Mensch, bewein dein Sünde gross’, BWV 622
Concerto in D minor, BWV 596
Sonata III in D minor, BWV 527
Partita diverse sopra il corale ‘Sei gegrusset, Jesu gütig’ BWV 768

Cathedral of Saint Paul, Wellington

Tuesday 31 March 12:45 pm (330th anniversary of J S Bach’s birth)

Middle C’s neglect so far of this momentous project, the performance of all, yes all, of Bach’s compositions for the organ is regrettable: caused by absences from Wellington, conflicting obligations. In my case, the Nelson Chamber Music Festival, Napier’s production of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, escapes to sun on the Horowhenua coast, and the past fortnight in Auckland and the far North.

Most of the musical fraternity know something of Bach’s huge output of music for the organ, though I imagine it’s rather confined, as is mine, to the ‘pure’ organ pieces – the preludes, toccatas, fantasias, passacaglias and fugues bearing BWV numbers in the 500s. But the scores of pieces based on chorales and other vocal music are perhaps too varied and numerous for the non-specialist to focus on.

My first reaction to the project was, ‘is it really possible, to play all the organ works in a series of 28 ¾ hour recitals’? If you look at the BWV catalogue (for example in Wikipedia) the organ works number from BWV 525 to 771, and there are later additions to the catalogue of organ pieces listed as Neumeister Chorales, BWV 1090 to 1121, which are also programmed throughout the series. That’s about 270 pieces. But if Stewart and Apperley play an average of ten or so each time, they make it.

This recital was a bit special as it was on Bach’s birthday.

The programme notes are written in a personal manner, a certain amount of musical learning, but a good deal of comment on the way the organist, here Richard Apperley, feels about the music and why it was chosen for the birthday.

The first piece was an organ chorale on a Lutheran Passion Hymn, for Lent (which is now), included in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein – Little Organ Book – composed during Bach’s years at Weimar (1708 – 1717). The notes quote Charles-Marie Widor’s judgement of it as ‘The finest piece of instrumental music written’, and Apperley adds that it’s one of the few chorale preludes to which he finds it possible to resist adding ornamentation. Indeed, as he played it, Bach’s own ornaments are elaborate enough, particularly given its chromatic character and richness of the counterpoint and fugal writing. Though generally it was an interesting illustration of the tastes of the period.

The general mood is lamenting, calm and heartfelt; and the tasteful registrations chosen allowed it to be heard clearly in the big space.

The Concerto in D minor is a transcription of one of Vivaldi’s L’estro armonico set, Op 3 No 11, which was for two violins. The Vivaldi is in three movements while Bach divides the first movement in two, separating its fugal section, so making it a four-movement work (Bach marks them: I. Ohne Bezeichnung (without indication), Grave; II. Fuga; III. Largo; IV. Finale). Though, before reading the notes, I had thought the fugal passage was, indeed, simply part of the opening Allegro.

The Vivaldi is a splendid work, but as the notes remark, Bach’s account is even more exciting. This had the effect both of demonstrating Bach’s genius as well as that of the commonly under-estimated Vivaldi who was after all responsible for the basic music and its shapes.

There were many delightful elements in the work, the varied registrations, the tempo contrasts, the beautiful Siciliano middle (third) movement, and the racing Finale of great virtuosity.

Richard Apperley wrote that the Sonata III, also in D minor, was his favourite of the six sonatas in the set; sometimes referred to as Trio Sonatas, they require the right and left hands to play distinct melodic lines on separate manuals, as if a violin and cello, while the feet play the basso continuo part on pedals, calling for considerable skill. The Trio Sonatas for organ seem to have been composed in Bach’s first years in Leipzig, from 1723; an early biographer stated that Bach wrote them as practice for his eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann.

Apperley gave clarity to the sonata’s distinct parts, displaying his own mastery of its challenges which encouraged the listener to hear them again in order to grasp better the sense of the counterpoint and strongly contrasted lines.

Finally the Chorale Partita, ‘Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig’, which was perhaps written very early, at Arnstadt where Bach worked between 1703 and 1706, that is, aged 17 to 21. It would explain the feeling I had as it was played, that its variation form – eleven of them – somewhat disguised an unsophisticated, apprentice composer. It was very listenable music, but the short, not organically connected variations sustained the attention only through their vivid contrasts, of mood, of registration, of tempo and all the multitude of devices available to a gifted young composer and a skilled player.

It is natural, of course, that in presenting the entire oeuvre of any composer, the masterpieces must take their place along with juvenilia and music that lacks strong character or inspiration. However, this does not detract from the importance of this brave adventure on which these two musicians have embarked.


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