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21st - Century Bach The complete organ works of J. S. Bach

Amorbach Abbey
1. Great’ Prelude and fugue in B minor (BWV 544)
2. Sonata II (BWV 526)
3. ‘Great’ Prelude and fugue in A minor (BWV 543)
4. Clavier-Übung III Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682) 5
5. Schübler Choräle: Wo soll ich fliehen hin? (BWV 646)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme (BWV 645)
6. Orgel-Büchlein: Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten (BWV 642)
Alle Menschen müssen sterben (BWV 643)
Ach wie nichtig, ach wie flüchtig (BWV 644)
In dich hab ich gehoffet, Herr (BWV 640)
7. Achtzehn Choräle: Von Gott will ich nicht lassen (BWV 658)
Stadtkirche Waltershausen
8. ‘Weimar’ Prelude and fugue in C major (BWV 545)
9. Sonata I (BWV 525)
10. Partite diverse: Sei gegrüsset Jesu gütig (BWV 768)
11. Achtzehn Choräle: Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr- Adagio (BWV 662)
12. Orgel-Büchlein: Christ lag in Todesbanden (BWV 625)
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (BWV 626)
Erstanden ist der heil’ge Christ (BWV 628)
Erschienen ist der herrliche Tag (BWV 629

 John Scott Whiteley on period organs
including interviews with Harvard University Professor Christoph Wolff, commentaries by the performer and behind the scenes documentary

Signum Vision SIGDVD003


You may have watched some of the late night BBC television broadcasts of the ‘21st century Bach’ organ series – normally either single pieces or a small group lasting about 15/20 minutes.  A sequence of these (from series 3 of the broadcasts) has now been collected together for what is billed as Vol 1 of a complete Bach series on DVD, although I have a feeling that two DVDs have already been issued of series one and two of the TV broadcasts under a different label. 


The format is the same as the TV versions, with each piece prefaced by Damien Hurst’s opening image of wasps flying around Bach’s head and the rather sinister walk down the church by the organist, dressed in a long black cloak and dark glasses portraying an image of organists than would send most people cowering behind the sofa.  At the end of each piece, the reverse happens – the organist is filmed walking out of the church (occasionally by a different route to the one he took to get in) and all the credits roll. 


It is such a shame that this wasn’t edited into a continuous recital, without the distraction of the opening and closing credits and antics.  I am afraid it leads me to seek out further oddities – for example, the organist always arrives with a great coat on, but we never see him taking it off before he plays and although his brief case is visible next to the organ bench, he arrives and leaves the church without it.  Distractions! 


The camerawork is extraordinary, with swooping shots giving close-ups of every aspect of the organist’s face and hands, his playing, and the instrument itself.  A further distraction was trying to work out just how they did it – only three cameramen are credited. 


As for the playing, there is much of interest in John Scott Whiteley’s performances but there are times when he seems to display a lack of knowledge of Bach performance scholarship and historic instruments.  Some of the questions during his rather awkward video-linked interview with the distinguished Bach scholar, Christoph Wolff, rather reinforce this impression.  His interpretations, ornaments, articulation and registrations are, at times, rather individualistic with ornaments in particular sometimes getting in the way of, rather than enhancing, Bach’s musical line.  Registrations for individual pieces are given but, curiously, no overall specifications of the two organs are provided, the first of which, with its 1868 Steinmeyer and 1982 Klais restorations, cannot really be considered as an authentic ‘historic’ instrument. 


With these reservations, I would however commend this series for the insight it gives to the technical and mechanical implications of making music on the organ.  If it brings a wider audience to this rather isolated and introspective world, all to the good. 


Andrew Benson-Wilson