Monumental complete organ works of Bach continue from organists of St Paul’s Cathedral

The Bach Project: Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley play the complete organ works of J.S. Bach throughout 2015

Michael Stewart, organ

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 23 October 2015, 12.45pm

Another varied programme in the Bach Project – this was concert no 25! – greeted a fairly sparse audience. Several of the items, identified by the German word ‘deest’, are not to be found in the Bach catalogue (BWV), and a number of others are catalogued in the appendices (Anh.). So these are probably heard much less frequently than those with BWV numbers.

In speaking to the audience before playing, Michael Stewart noted that 31 October would be Reformation Day, commemorating the day on which Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church, (the Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, in 1517. Bach’s chorale preludes were based on Lutheran chorales, or hymn tunes, with which his Lutheran congregations in Leipzig would have been very familiar.

The opening Prelude in E minor, BWV 533, contained plenty of Bach complexity and variety, and its plangent tones opened the pipes, and the ears, in a satisfying manner.

‘Befiehl du deine Wege’ was the first of the chorale preludes, in two settings (Anh.II 79 and deest). The first gave a clear statement of the chorale melody, which is the same as the well-known ‘Passion Chorale” (‘O Haupt so voll Blut und Wunden’ in St. Matthew Passion, or ‘Herzlich thut mich verlangen’). The second one was played louder, and was probably more ornate. At various points the melody was played on the pedals. There were wonderfully inventive decorations of that melody, especially in this second work, which became very intricate.

The familiar Lutheran hymn ‘Ein’ feste Burg is unser Gott’ also came in two settings. Again, one was from the appendices. In that one, the melody seemed to give rise to other melodic fragments that had their own character, and were interwoven with the main theme. The second (BWV 720) is better known, and quite different. Reed pipes were brought into play, some of them slightly out of tune, probably due to the damp weather. There was plenty of contrast between manuals and pedals, when the latter were finally brought into the discussion.

The Fugue in C minor (on a theme of Legrenzi, BWV 574) interposed before the next set of chorale preludes. Giovanni Legrenzi was an Italian composer (1626 – 1690). This was a double fugue, i.e. it had two themes. Judicious registration meant it never sounded muddied or too complex. In the second, more florid part of the piece more stops were added, including a two-foot, giving a louder, brighter and more brilliant sound.

‘Es ist das Heil uns kommen her’, again in two versions, one being uncatalogued, followed. The BWV 638 version is short, robust and joyful, with the choral melody clearly ringing out in the top line. Variation on the melody is straightforward. The second version did not seem so distinguished.

Two preludes on ‘Valet will ich dir geben’ (BWV 735 and 736) were next. The second brought in a heavier texture than the first, with low pedal notes, the whole being set in a lower key. The chorale melody is known to English speakers as the tune for ‘All glory, laud and honour’. Again, a number of pipes were slightly out of tune. Stewart’s playing was not too fast, and so clarity was maintained in these quite complex pieces.

The Fugue in C (Anh.II 90) is quite short, and featured delightful, high-pitched arpeggios at the start. The light registration gave an effect of the sound coming from a great distance away.

The first of two chorale preludes (BWV 1110 and 757) on ‘O Herre Gott, dein göttlichs Wort’ was played lightly, the chorale melody being very clear, while the second had the melody commencing in the left hand, followed by the pedals. The opening phrases were reminiscent of ‘The Old Hundredth’ (‘All people that on earth do dwell’).

The last chorale prelude was ‘Jesus, meine Zuversicht’ (BWV 728), a short, slow and charming piece with delightful ornaments.

To end the recital, Michael Stewart played the ‘Little’ Fugue in G minor (BWV 578) While the separation of notes in the theme was fine, I would have liked a little more phrasing of the passages of the fugue theme. The piece made a triumphant end to a splendid recital.

By sitting well forward in the church, and due to the skill of the organist, I did not find Bach’s works muddied by the acoustics, as I sometimes have in the past. The works, besides being supremely competently played by Michael Stewart, showed off the organ well.



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