An impressive, major programme in the series of Bach’s complete organ music at St Paul’s Cathedral

The Bach Project:
Programme 13 of the complete organ works of J.S. Bach, throughout 2015

Richard Apperley, Michael Stewart, organ

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 26 June 2015, 6.00pm

The programme this time was in the early evening, rather than lunchtime, enabling a good-sized audience to attend.  The items were chosen for the recital by ballot, and it was interesting to see a mixture of well-known and lesser known works appearing.

Under the hands (and feet) of two organists who play here regularly, the music of Bach did not suffer  (with one or two minor exceptions) from the muddied sound I’ve heard from some organists when playing Bach in this venue.

The first offering was Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C, BWV 564.  This is a well-known work, with much variety, including pedal solo.  Variations in the tempo by Richard Apperley, who played the first five items, made the work interesting, and a far cry from those who play Bach mechanistically.  Very satisfying registrations were employed.

The Adagio is a favourite movement of mine, and although Apperley took it a little faster than I’ve sometimes heard it, it was none the worse for that, except for some of the turns, which lost a degree of clarity.  Conversely, the Grave latter part of the second movement was slower than I have heard it, and thereby much improved.  The detached fingering in the final movement made the fugue theme at its various entries much more apparent.

Now to a shorter work: ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’, BWV 645.  This gorgeous chorale prelude from the Schübler Chorales, with its running accompaniment on flute stops and the melody on a low reed was quite delightful.  Bach’s suiting of the pitch and length of the notes to the words of the chorale on which the piece is based makes this much more than music only.

The famous, and oft-arranged, Toccata and Fugue in D minor was not top of the selection, as Michael Stewart said he expected it to be.  The grandeur of this work, and its increasing complexity, were fully realised by Richard Apperley.  He did not change registrations by swapping manuals during movements, as many do; thus he preserved Baroque practice.  The brilliant ending was almost as dramatic as the opening.

I have many fine recordings of organ music, but the sound does not compare with the ambience and extra dimensions of hearing the music on an organ in a cathedral or other large buildings, where the organ has been designed and built for the space and acoustic.

We needed a gentle rest after that!  Sure enough, another chorale prelude between the larger works ensued: ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’, BWV 538.  The programme note included ‘I would wager that there aren’t many young organists who haven’t learned to play this!’  Young or not, it was the first piece of Bach I learned on the organ.  It has an utterly charming opening, and like all of its genre, it relies on phrasing, or breathing, of the lines of the chorale on which it is based.  Sure enough, it was all there, as Maxwell Fernie taught me.

The chords of the accompaniment set off the melody line so well, although I found Apperley’s registration of the accompaniment a little too quiet against the stop chosen for the melody.

Another toccata and fugue, this one the so-called ‘Dorian’, BWV 538.  I was less familiar with it than with the rest of the programme.  According to the programme note, there is not much relationship to the Dorian mode at all. (A little slip in the programme note: the work would have been composed in Weimar, not Leipzig, if between 1708 and 1717.)  It is a very grand and complex work – almost convoluted.

At interval, there was a choice of mulled wine or a non-alcoholic hot drink, plus cake to be had – a welcome offering on a cold night.

Michael Stewart played the second half, beginning with Fantasia and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542.  It boasts a portentous opening, described in the notes as ‘one of the most arresting openings of any piece in the organ repertoire’.  The harmonic shifts in this work are quite amazing, and exciting.  In the fugue, held notes with much going on underneath, made for drama and interest.

Next was Sonata in E flat, BWV 535.  One of the six charming Trio Sonatas, this was played using flutes for the opening, and for accompanying the melodies played on reeds.  These melodies sounded rather
like chorales.  In the final section, allegro, there was pleasing staccato on the pedals, against a running

Pièce d’Orgue, otherwise Fantasia in G, BWV 572, was the ‘unforeseen winner’ of the poll of the audience.  Here I felt that the very resonant acoustic told against the fast tempo of the semi-quavers of the first section, très vitement.  The ‘grave’ second section was full, rich, imposing and forward-moving.  The lentement final section hardly seemed slow, with its demi-semi-quavers.  It is a marvellous work.

Finally, Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582.  It was a tour de force.  Its theme and 21 variations were carried off with clarity; the difficult work was played superbly.

It is rare to hear an organ recital of this length (two hours), entirely of Bach’s music, and consistently played with equal accomplishment by two different organists.  Above all, this recital demonstrated the huge range of forms, styles and moods in Bach’s diverse and brilliant oeuvre.  The excellent programme notes by the two protagonists added to the value and enjoyment of the concert.