Hansjörg Albrecht (org)
OEHMS 684 (2 SACDs: 157:56)
33:4, I didn’t warm to an organ arrangement of Bach’s
performed by Martin Schmeding. Such was the misfit between music and instrument, I concluded, that the piece was almost unrecognizable. Granted, the organ and harpsichord are both keyboard instruments, but then one could say that the double bass is just an oversized violin. Yet the fingering and bowing techniques demanded by Bach’s unaccompanied sonatas and partitas for violin are specific to the instrument and would not transfer easily, if at all, to a double bass.
In the case of Bach’s six keyboard partitas it comes down to matters of keyboard figuration and of, let’s call them the speech patterns, that constitute the voice of the instrument. Like the violin partitas and the suites for solo cello, the keyboard partitas are essentially dance suites, as are Bach’s other two great keyboard collections, the French and English Suites. The speech patterns, even in the slow movements, are informed by stylized rhythms and gestural impulses that suggest formalized body motions; and in the fast movements, the instrument’s voice must be capable of speaking very quickly.
Now, this may not be the best analogy, but sitting at a harpsichord is like driving a high-performance vehicle. You barely tap the gas pedal, and the next thing you know, you’re going 70 miles per hour and taking hairpin curves in the road without even noticing them. In contrast, sitting at the console of an organ is like driving a bus. Turn the steering wheel and several seconds later the bus reacts. Similarly with the organ, there’s a delay between command and response because it takes longer for the organ’s massive and complex machinery to sound a note than it does for the less unwieldy mechanism of a harpsichord or piano to do so.
Also, the player sitting at a harpsichord or piano is very close to his or her instrument and the sounds it produces. The organist’s instrument is not the keyboard, pedals, and registration controls; it’s the pipes, and they can be some distance from the player. Every organist learns to adjust to the delay between fingers and feet pressing keys and pedals and the actual sounds that result. This is simply not conducive to the quickness of Bach’s writing for harpsichord, which is fundamentally different than his writing for organ.
Hansjörg Albrecht plays these partitas from his own arrangements on the organ of St. Cyriac in Krefeld-Hüls, Germany, an instrument built in 1999 by Swiss maker Metzler-Orgelbau after a non-specific (Orgelprospekt) 1783 design. Fortunately, he never advances any academic argument or sophist theory in his liner notes to suggest a historical justification for performance of these works on the organ. He simply loves this music, and his rationale for playing it on the organ is that it is the instrument for which Bach had the greatest affinity and which therefore was closest to his heart. Albrecht closes his essay quoting Leonard Bernstein, who said, “Bach was a man and not God, but he was a man of God and his music was blessed by God from the beginning to the end.” It’s hard to argue with a statement like that, but I would say that Bach wrote a great deal of music—much of it actually for the organ—with a specific religious purpose in mind. His sets of keyboard and solo string suites are not among those works, however transmundane we may find them.
Attribute it, if you will, to long-term conditioning, but the sound of an organ just doesn’t sit right with me in these works. As with Schmeding’s organ version of the
, the slow movements in Albrecht’s partitas come across sounding too much like Bach’s devotional chorale preludes, while the fast movements give the impression of music being played on a circus calliope. If that’s not an impediment to you, then the set can be recommended for the impressive sounds that issue from the organ’s pipes, thanks to Albrecht’s willingness to explore its wide range of registrations and sonic capabilities, to his superb finger and foot work, and to Oehms’s dynamic recording.