Johann Sebastian Bach Œuvres pour orgue

couverture

Johann Sebastian Bach
Organ masterpieces
Chorals BWV 709, 721, 740
Fantasia BWV 572, Fantasia et Fuga BWV 537
Passacaglia BWV 582, Pastorale BWV 590, Toccata BWV 564

Jean-Charles Ablitzer
Christoph Treutmann historical organ (1737)
Sankt Georg Stiftskirche, Goslar-Grauhof, Niedersachen, Germany

"Choc" du Monde de la Musique n°206
"10" de Répertoire n°97

Digital/Digital/Digital


It was only for fifteen years, or the first third of his active professional life, that Johann Sebastian Bach served as a church organist. As such, he was mainly expected to accompany church congregations during hymn singing, and to provide them with musical support before the singing began. This involved outlining the melody, giving the key note, and setting the tempo and the mood, both musical and spiritual. When seated before his organ manuals, Bach the musician, believer, and poet instinctively paraphrased the religiously-charged hymn tunes, providing a sort of theological commentary in music. This was the chorale prelude. Bach inherited the basic musical form from Johann Pachelbel, enlarged on it in the style of Georg Boehm and Diderik Buxtehude, and raised it - as he was to do with so many other musical forms - to a peerless degree of development and perfection. No absolutely accurate count of these works can be made, but there are known to exist at least 200 chorale preludes to the hymns most frequently sung in the Lutheran churches of Thuringia.

Much as the rich attract riches, Bach has probably been credited with some pieces he did not compose. One of these is the Trinity Sunday Chorale "Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, Vater" ("To One God, the Father, Give We Our Faith") BWV 740, which may have been composed by one of the Cantor’s star pupils, Johann Ludwig Krebs. Although the musical embellishment is definitely less subtle here than in other preludes, the polyphony nevertheless boasts four voices in addition to the melodic line, including two for pedal board alone.

Although not as well-known as the identically-named piece fortunately included in the "Little Organ Book" Bach compiled over the years, the Chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend'!" ("Lord Jesus Christ, Shed Thy Light Upon Us") BWV 709, is nevertheless a minor masterpiece of joyous faith, and highly characteristic of Bach’s style. Each note of the melody is intricately embellished, as if to underscore the ardor of the Christian as he plies the paths of truth.

The Chorale "Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott" ("Lord God Have Mercy On Me") BWV 721 occupies a unique place in the canon of Bach organ chorales. The stately melody rises from a heavy, mournful bass line in a somewhat archaic style reminiscent of Johann Kuhnau. Bach was acquainted with the affable, highly cultivated Kuhnau, a lawyer as well as an organist and composer, and eventually succeeded him at Leipzig's St. Thomas church. The piece can thus be considered as both a musical tribute to Kuhnau’s art, and a prayer for the repose of his soul.

The artistic summits Bach himself was to scale required a lengthy apprenticeship. Before achieving supreme mastery through his powerful synthesis of all the major contemporary musical currents in Europe, Bach learned his craft by thoroughly exploring every kind of music he encountered. An insatiably curious man, he grasped every bit of chaff that came his way, and spun it into gold. In earliest youth he was mainly exposed to the style prevalent in central and southern Germany, which was dominated by the figure of Johann Pachelbel. It was on his arrival in Lüneburg at the age of fifteen to attend school that he discovered the glorious music of the northern masters, Matthias Weckmann, Johann Adam Reinken, and above all Diderik Buxtehude; and the elegant French style that was highly esteemed in a region sheltering many Huguenot refugees. Bach copied Nicolas de Grigny's Organ Book and numerous pieces by Charles Dieupart and Jean-Henri d’Anglebert. These lasting influences on the master are readily discernible in early works written before they were completely assimilated into his mature style.

An example is the Fantasy in G Major BWV 572, today known under its French title, "Pièce d’orgue", since this is the name inscribed on the oldest surviving copy (the original manuscript is lost); and since the designations for each of the three movements, "très vitement" "gravement" and "lentement" are also in French. The first and last movements of this highly original piece contain arpeggios that might have been written for the lute; the central movement epitomizes the French style executed with all the stops out.

Although Johann Sebastian Bach’s study of French composers may have made his music more elegant than that of his Saxon contemporaries, it did not diminish his determined effort to exploit the great contrapuntal and declamatory German forms inherited from his glorious predecessors. Impelled by his powerful musical imagination, he stretched these forms to the utmost, devising a proliferation of musical motifs with ever denser and more complex phrasing. Prime examples are the fugues written during the Weimar years, especially his great masterpiece, the Passacaglia in C Minor BWV 582. This impressively grandiose piece may even be a tribute to Bach’s master Diderik Buxtehude, whose Passacaglia in D Minor must surely have left its mark on the youthful twenty-years old who once visited his elder in Lübeck for the purpose, in Bach’s own words, "of learning various things relative to his art". In Bach’s Passacaglia, the admirably configured ground bass motif rises and falls in solo exposition. Twenty variations are then spun out over the insistently repeated motif, increasing the tension until, following a momentary lull in the polyphonic web, they conclude with an impressive augmentation of the original theme. After this the motif receives a lengthy fugue treatment although, in contrast to the classic fugue form in which the subject is varied and transformed, here the subject is repeated twelve times in all of its original majesty. We know nothing about the background of this work, the purpose for which it was intended, or even what the subsequently-lost manuscript actually looked like. All we have, is the music itself, with its hint of mystery. This consummate masterpiece raises questions as to how the arcana of its atypical and yet supremely eloquent form should be interpreted. Is there a "key" to decoding it? Is there an underlying symbolic similar to those that were to inspire Bach at the end of his life? The ground bass motif is repeated first 21, and then 12 times. The Bible lists 21 attributes of Wisdom, the number of supreme perfection; and 12 is the universal number. Is this significant? Was Bach attempting to convey a spiritual message? The sum of 21 and 12 is 33, the age of Christ the Redeemer when he suffered, died, and was resurrected. Is this also part of the message? Bach leads us to the threshold of his secret but does not reveal the answer, which his listeners are left to elucidate for themselves.

After exposure to influences from both Germany and France, one further step remained to be taken in Bach's musical apprenticeship, the obligatory rite of passage all artists of his time underwent : the revelation of Italian art. Unfortunately, first as a penniless orphan and then as a family man with heavy financial responsibilities, Bach never managed to make the pilgrimage over the mountains. However, he explored the music of Rome and Venice intellectually, learning about its flamboyant formal inventions through the scores circulating all over Europe by composers such as Girolamo Frescobaldi and Arcangelo Corelli, Giovanni Legrenzi and Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni, and - above all - Antonio Vivaldi. During the years 1714 and 1715 Johann Sebastian Bach immersed himself in the study of this style whose radiant formal perfection and exuberant vocalism was totally new to him. Extensive evidence of the Italian influence on Bach survives, first, in the transcriptions he made; and, second, in the original compositions he penned in the new style, including all his subsequent concertos and sonatas.

An example is the Pastorale BWV 590, entitled Pastorella pro organo in contemporary copies, an homage to the Italian style and to popular adoration of the Nativity. The first movement of the four-movement piece exhibits the conventional features of this form, its delicate imagery trilling with a distant echo of shepherds’ pipes. In the second movement Bach gives us a more personal response to the scene, using a solemn Allemande to evoke the procession of worshipers led by the Magi in adoration of the Christ Child. The third movement is a mournful and expressive cantilena foreshadowing the suffering on Calvary that lies ahead for the miraculous child. Finally, the fourth and last movement concludes with an endless, whirling dance of angels above the manger.
The Italian model was to leave a decisive mark on Bach’s melodic lines for both instrumental and vocal music. It also served him as an incentive to channel his untamed imagination into more disciplined forms, and to clarify the structures of his rhetorical style. The poignant and intense Fantasy and Fugue in C Minor BWV 537, for example, differs formally from preceding two-part works. The traditional alternation of declamatory and contrapuntal sections has been simplified for the two-section Fantasy, in which the themes are repeated and augmented. The Fugue subject is strongly influenced by the Italian violin style. The piece as a whole, instead of concluding in the conventional way, opens onto a new fugue derived from the original, and then, in a whirl of innovation, ends with a repeat like an aria da capo from an opera seria.

The Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C Major BWV 564, composed before Bach reached the apogée of his final works, presents a vivid picture of the composer as performer and improviser. This piece probably began as a two-part processional or recessional for church services, with the adagio section inserted at a later date between the free-form toccata and concluding fugue to make it more suitable for concert performance. There are other examples of this in the Bach canon. Opening on a trill that could be a vestige from the original improvisation, the toccata goes on to a prelude concertant in which a mighty sequence on the pedal board contributes to the piece's showy virtuosity. The central adagio section is an ornate melodic line embellished with Italianate figures modulating tortuously into a mysterious transitional passage whose somber chords suddenly break into a joyous and inventive fugue combining the strict rules of that form with those of the concerto. The piece concludes in a free-style apotheosis of the imagination.

Johann Sebastian Bach left Weimar when he was 32 years old and spent the next five years at the court of Coethen. He then moved to Leipzig, where he lived for twenty-seven years without ever again occupying the post of organist. However, despite all of his other activities - directing musical programs for the entire city of Leipzig; teaching; and, of course, composing for the church, the city, and the court - he still maintained a keen interest in the organ. He was often called on for his expert opinion, he gave concert performances, and we may also surmise that he occasionally played for his own intellectual and spiritual satisfaction. By the time he settled in Leipzig, his period of apprenticeship and experimentation with outside influences was over. His personal musical language and unique style, the summation of everything he knew instinctively and had acquired through learning, were fully developed. We should also bear in mind that this man of supreme accomplishment at the organ and harpsichord was also, according to his contemporaries, a fine string player with a special predilection for the viola; a flutist; and a singer. Each element in this vast range of expressive potential was mutually enhancing, and each also nourished the inspiration of Bach the composer. Although in his later years Johann Sebastian Bach wrote fewer works for the organ, those he did produce were more complex, the fruit of an intensely matured artistic intellect that with the passage of time became increasingly introspective and abstract. During this final period Bach produced chorales of extreme formal and poetic concentration, and an impressive array of preludes and fugues. By the end of his life the composer had approached the absolute in terms of the creative act. It was as if, as Goethe put it, "eternal harmony were speaking to itself, as once it must have done within the heart of God, before the creation of the world".

Gilles Cantagrel
English adaptation by Louise Guiney

 

Jean-Charles Ablitzer

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Born in 1946 and attracted early in life by the organ, Jean-Charles Ablitzer was self-taught before enrolling in the Strasbourg Conservatory, where he studied under Pierre Vidal. In 1971 he won the post of organist at Saint-Christophe Cathedral of Belfort, home of the great Valtrin-Callinet organ restored by Kurt Schwenkedel of Strasbourg. The same year he was also named professor of organ at the Belfort Conservatory.

J.C. Ablitzer's extensive knowledge of baroque music and instruments conditions the rigorous discipline of his style, which reflects the principles described in learned treatises; his personal discoveries regarding registration, articulation and phrasing; and his research into antique organs (construction materials, keyboard and pedalboard configuration). Jean-Charles Ablitzer is an ardent chamber-music performer, and has participated in numerous baroque ensemble concerts and recordings.

The high quality of Ablitzer's recordings (Bach, Couperin) has received ample praise from the critics : "…Playing a superb Catalan instrument with the characteristic Iberian nasality, Ablitzer constructs a glittering monument resounding with vast incandescent figures. Phrasing, registration, and digital dexterity are stunning. No one since Chapuis has played Couperin this brilliantly…" (from a review by Jean-Luc Macia).

Ablitzer's two recordings of François Couperin Masses were ranked by the monthly review "Le Monde de la Musique" as among the ten best classical recordings of 1987.
"…Jean-Charles Ablitzer's abilities as a colourist enable him to etch the smallest details of a tormented work that eschews comfortable harmonies and banal equilibrium, and to confront its most lyrical effusions with aplomb. This "Complete Works" (Buxtehude) in progress is devilishly promising…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…But never fear; the Belfort organist doesn't drag Brahms over the borderline into austere pedantry. He remembers the lesson this composer learned during his long stay in Vienna, the importance of smooth flow and sunny declamation : here is a recording flooded with just that Viennese spirit…" (from a review by Xavier Lacavalerie).

"…his fervour is enough to draw tears from a stone, but it is his exuberance and joy that fulfil the crucial role of restoring to Titelouze's music its original sharp brilliance and dazzling verve. The centuries fall away, the musical themes engage with each other like flashing swords of light…" (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…dedicated to Georg Boehm, known for having influenced the great Bach, his works, it is now proven, deserve their own success. To the glowing chorales, Monique Zanetti lends her pureness and ecstatic innocence, while Jean-Charles Ablitzer offers glory and enlightenment.” (from a review by Paul Meunier).

"…he is well aware of the recent musicological evolutions, his application of which is extremely seductive… He is not the prisoner of any fashion in his choice of tempi, phrasing, or registration. On the contrary, he is constantly inspired, proposing innovative solutions with every page." (from a review by Francis Albou /J.S. Bach, Organ works in Goslar).

 

The Sankt Georg Stiftskirche historical organ in Goslar-Grauhof

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Although some gaps still remain in our knowledge of German organ builder Christoph Treutmann's life and work, the major points are thoroughly familiar. Christoph Treutmann the Elder was born in Silesia about 1673-74, and served his apprenticeship under Heinrich Herbst the Younger at the Herbst family workshop in Magdeburg.

Christoph Treutmann is believed to have set up his own workshop sometime between 1695 and 1700. Since the early years of the 20th century, musicologists specializing in the history of the organ have been able to assert with almost complete certainty that Treutmann also served as an assistant to famed Hamburg organ builder Arp Schnitger. This hypothesis rests on certain technical and aesthetic features common to organs built by both men. Geographic and chronological coincidences imply that Christoph Treutmann must have taken part in the construction of Schnitger's organ at St Johannis church in Magdeburg, the first of the great Arp Schnitger organs in Central Germany, which was built from 1689 to 1694. This is the instrument that made Schnitger famous throughout Germany and, in terms of size, it ranks second among the impressive total of 159 instruments attributed to the Hamburg organ builder.

On 13 May 1734, Treutmann was commissioned by the Grauhof Abbey to build the organ that was to be his finest work. A copy of the contract, in which Treutmann offers his services to the parish for the construction of a new organ, was recently discovered in the Clausthal-Zellerfeld university library. The Grauhof organ was completed in 1737. In 1738, the following year, Johann Hermann Biermann wrote a detailed description of the instrument in his Organographia Hildesiensis Specialis. This organ, which has recently been restored, is substantially the same as when first constructed, and today is the only authentic surviving example of Christoph Treutmann's work.

Treutmann's instrument resembles Schnitger's organ at St Johannis of Magdeburg in terms both of overall technical design and specific features connected with the reed pipes, windchest, and pipes. Most notably, the expanded manual and pedalboard octave was pioneered by Schnitger at Magdeburg, an innovation that during the 17th century was as costly as it was rare.

The extensive pedal includes four windchests placed by two's on either side of the great organ. There is a forward windchest on the organ chest side for the principals, and a rear windchest for the bass flute stops and reed pipes (Posaune 32'). This registration was a brilliant invention imitated by most German organ builders until the end of the 18th century.

The elimination of the rear positive, which during the 17th century was habitually placed towards the front of the organ loft, dramatically changes the organ's tone from the differentiated 17th century quality, to a more "melting" one. Gottfried Silbermann was obliged to follow this new acoustic style in Freiberg, in 1710, when he eliminated the rear positive, a component that continued to be standard in France until after the Revolution.

As far as we can judge from archival evidence, it is to Gottfried Fritsche that we owe the first bass flute stops. In the organ he completed in 1621 for the Marian chapel at Wolfenbüttel castle, Fritsche even installed a complicated acoustic variant, a 12' flute stop coupled through the pedalboard. The St Nicolai organ in Hamburg, the largest of those built by Arp Schnitger, also has this stop. The installation of two coupling devices making it possible to play three tonal ranges simultaneously appeared for the first time in Schnitger's organs at St Johannis in Magdeburg and St Nicolai in Hamburg. All of these features are combined in the Grauhof organ. Modifications in the original design, made by Treutmann after the contract was signed, are also of considerable interest because of the light they cast on the history of organ manufacture.

The Brustwerk originally planned for the front, above the console, is moved behind the Oberwerk. This improved the acoustics of the instrument, shielding the organist from the instrument's shrillest frequencies while also improving resonance under the vault of the ceiling. Treutmann did not stop there, however. He also modernized the registration, although some of his "modernizations" were actually a return to the tried-and-true traditions of the past. He eliminated a 16' Violin stop made of wood from the pedalboard, and replaced the 2' Octava and 2' Gemshorn stops with a 16' Viola da Gamba and 3-rank Rauschpfeife containing a 2' Octava in the lowest-pitched rank. The most daring of these acoustic innovations is the 16' Viola da Gamba, used for the basso continuo. The Rauschpfeife harks back to one of Schnitger's earlier registrations, in which the main stops are supplemented by a small-sized third, a procedure also followed at St Johannis in Magdeburg. Lastly, a 2' Octava and a 1-and-1/3' Quinta are added to the Hinterwerk, and the originally planned 1' Sedecima eliminated.

Christoph Treutmann the Elder's organ at Grauhof is of special interest because of the inestimable value to posterity of an instrument that has been preserved in its original state. This is the sole surviving instrument built by a master whose art can be compared with that of the greatest builders of his time, such as Joachim Wagner's in Berlin, Gottfried Silbermann's in Freiberg, and Christian Müller of Andreasberg's in Amsterdam; and also with that of Arp Schnitger's most talented followers in Northern Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia. Here is an exquisitely preserved instrument, built by a master who combined outstanding craftsmanship with an extremely personal conception of instrumental tone.

Note should also be made of the technical and acoustic theories of the organ formulated by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach. Treutmann's organ presents the quality of depth required by J.S. Bach, and also meets his other demands – diversity of solo and accompanying registers (Viola da Gamba, for example), and a full set of reed pipes and principals – which were found elsewhere only in the more modest Lahm/Itzgrund instrument.

Artistically, Christoph Treutmann the Elder's organ at the Grauhof Abbey church, near Goslar, occupies a pivotal place between the late baroque and early rococo periods. It is one of the rare instruments in northern Germany with a filigree-carved organ chest, and compares favourably with the admirable instruments found in the abbey churches of Southern Germany. 

from the text by Uwe Droszella President of the Appraisal Commission


tracks

Toccata et Fuga BWV 564
in C-dur/in C major/en ut majeur

Choral BWV 709
"Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend’!"

Fantasia BWV 572
in G-dur/in G major/en sol majeur

Choral BWV 721
"Erbarm’ dich mein, O Herre Gott"

Pastorale BWV 590
in F-dur/in F major/en fa majeur

Fantasia et Fuga BWV 537
in C-moll/in C minor/en ut mineur

Choral BWV 740
"Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, Vater"

Passacaglia BWV 582
in C-moll/in C minor/en ut mineur

 

Review

"Chocdu Monde de la Musique n°206 :

Dans le magnifique diptyque qu'est la Fantaisie et Fugue en ut mineur, qui date vraisemblablement des dernières années de la période de Weimar (environ 1716), les deux volets développent un climat sombre et poignant qui convient à toute grande méditation introspective sur la mort. Dans la gigantesque et flamboyante Passacaille et thème fugué en ut mineur, Bach semble vouloir concilier la plus grande rigueur dans la contrainte (l'inlassable répétition d'un motif en ostinato) et la plus extrême fantaisie dans les variations. La cohérence de la grande forme fait place à un étonnant caractère d'improvisation fulgurante dans le triptyque Toccata, Adagio et Fugue en ut majeur BWV 564. Sans doute composée vers 1714, la Fantaisie en sol BWV 572 - nommée Pièce d'orgue, en français, dans plusieurs copies anciennes - est une page unique dans l'œuvre d'orgue de Bach qui, dans son second mouvement à la polyphonie riche en retards et en dissonances, rend hommage aux grands pleins-jeux de l'écriture d'orgue à la française. Le Choral BWV 709 est un très beau prélude du recueil Kirnberger, et si la paternité de la populaire Pastorale en fa majeur n'est plus mise en doute aujourd'hui, on a longtemps discuté l'authenticité du prélude sur Erbarm' dich mein, O Herre Gott BWV 721, écrit dans un style quelque peu archaïque évoquant celui de Johann Kuhnau.
Dans ce récital inspiré d'un bout à l'autre, Jean-Charles Ablitzer développe un climat tantôt intimiste et mystérieux 
(Choral "Erbarm dich mein", "Adagio" de la Toccata en ut, troisième volet de la Fantaisie en sol), ou truculent et pittoresque (Pastorale, premier volet de la Fantaisie en sol), tantôt monumental (Passacaille en ut mineur), où l'élan est sous-tendu par des phrasés qui appuient remarquablement la pulsation interne. Le caractère évocateur de la musique française (Fantaisie en sol) est naturellement souligné. Ablitzer donne de la Toccata, Adagio et Fugue en ut et de la Passacaille en ut mineur une vision à la fois scintillante et intériorisée. L'orgue, signé Christoph Treutmann ( 1737), de l'abbatiale Sankt Georg de Goslar-Grauhof en Basse-Saxe permet un équilibre incomparable entre la splendeur, le fruité des timbres et la clarté du discours. - Patrick Szersnovicz


"10de Répertoire n°97 :

Voilà un récital superbe, intelligemment conçu, qui donne une vision synthétique de l'univers organistique de Bach : le choral et la fugue. Ce programme, d'un parfait équilibre, permet à tout amoureux de l'orgue de tomber sous le charme du splendide trois claviers signé Christoph Treutmann achevé en 1737 et demeuré intact. Flûtes, plein-jeux, anches, tutti, tout sonne de manière exceptionnelle... d'autant que la prise de son est d'une saisissante vérité.
Jean-Charles Ablitzer fait preuve d'une liberté et d'une imagination hors du commun. Certes, il n'ignore rien des récentes évolutions de la musicologie, mais la manière de les observer est extrêmement séduisante ... que ce soit dans ses tempi, ses phrasés ou ses registrations. Ablitzer n'est prisonnier d'aucune mode. Il est lui-même, constamment inspiré, innovant à chaque page. Ainsi la Toccata en ut se développe noblement, dans une battue générale rigoureuse alors que chaque ponctuation (épisodes monodiques en début surtout) est soulignée par une souple retenue. Aucune profusion ornementale dans l'adagio mais un jeu éloquent et expressif qui porte avec grâce le chant de la sublime cantilène. La fugue, jouée sur le plenum avec une basse très dense rappelle, par sa truculence, la verve des concertos italiens.
On aimerait pouvoir détailler chaque choral, véritables joyaux, exprimant en profondeur le texte des cantiques: contrition sincère d' "Erbam' dich mein, 0 Herre Gott", jubilation intérieure de "Herr Jesu Christ...". Surprise totale avec la "Pastorale" jouée de manière unique et incomparable. Le pittoresque de la Nativité s'immisce dans chacun de ses quatre mouvements, jusqu'à l'ingénieux crescendo du final fugué : superbe! Grandiose et surprenante par ses tempi repensé, la Pièce d'orgue en sol majeur, dont le troisième volet rappelle ici quelque fantaisie pour luth. Et toujours ces timbres mordorés, d'une infinie variété, hélas perturbés par le cliquetis de la mécanique! Timbres dont on pourra savourer la richesse et la cohérence dans l'exceptionnelle Passacaille et Fugue qui clôt ce récital. Ablitzer (...) a opté pour une grande progression dynamique, mettant en valeur toute la palette instrumentale. Mais, avec un goût parfait, il articule le thème qui garde ainsi, tout au long des variations, une parfaite lisibilité. La fugue s'appuie sur un grand plein-jeu d'anches qui lui insuffle une dynamique incomparable. A la fois brillante et colorée, intense et pénétrante, cette Passacaille s'impose avec panache... 
Un récital de référence qui devrait en appeler d'autres : Ablitzer fait partie de ces musiciens qui ont tant à dire! - Francis Albou.
Technique : 9/10. Un réalisme saisissant : l'instrument est restitué avec tous ses plans sonores.



Selected by "Le guide des meilleurs disques de l'année" du Monde de la Musique
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