Bach: Clavier-Übung III

Stephen Farr (Metzler organ of Trinity College, Cambridge)
105:20 (2 CDs in jewel case)
Resonus RES10120

James Johnstone (Wagner organ 1739, Trondheim)
107:26 (2 CDs in a card folder)
Metronome MET CD 1094

Like No 11 busses, no new Clavier-Übung III  comes for ages, and now two arrive at once! Both are from English players, and both use good instruments: Stephen Farr plays on the 42 stop 1975 Metzler in Trinity Cambridge and James Johnstone uses the 30 stop 1741 Wagner organ in Trondheim Cathedral, carefully reconstituted by highly experienced Jürgen Ahrend in the 1990s.

In his Liner notes, Farr ponders – as does Johnstone – whether the ‘arcane, unfamiliar and wilfully awkward musical procedures’ in this volume were intended by Bach as a musical riposte to his former pupil, now critic, Scheibe, who in 1737 had accused him of writing in an antiquated mode, rather than in the more tuneful and lyrical gallant style now popular. So what kind of performance does this collection require?

Farr opts for a varied set of performances, using some ingenious registrations. In Jesus Christus unser Heiland  (BWV 688) for example, Farr uses the Rückpositiv 8’ & 4’flutes, and then the Hauptwerk Vox Humana in the left hand to great effect, but it is drawn with both the 8’ Octave and Hohlflöte as well as the 4’ Spitzflöte; in the pedal are also the two 8’ flues coupled to the Swell 4’ Principal and 8’ Trompete. Farr’s articulation is excellent, but I wonder about the thickening effect of his constant use of multiple 8’ ranks. By contrast, the manualiter preludes BWV 685 & 803 are delightfully played, each on just a 4’ flute, and 804 follows on the recovered Smith 8’ Principal on the Rückpositiv: the clarity of these registrations and the elegance of Farr’s fingerwork is a delight. But somehow the organ doesn’t really sparkle: the pedal in particular is often a bit indistinct, and although performances are excellently played, it sounds a bit dull to me – are they recorded from too far away? As well as details of the Metzler organ, Farr gives the precise registration for each piece – a bit of good practice that most recordings on historic instruments in Holland and North Germany seem to provide these days.

Johnstone is a bit more of an early music specialist, and this CD – one of what will be a (yet another!) complete Bach organ works – is presented on an instrument that is almost exactly contemporaneous with the Clavier-Übung III’s date of 1739. The Trondheim organ is Wagner’s only instrument outside Prussia, and took two years to arrive and be assembled. Dismantled in the 1930s in favour of a large Steinmayer organ hidden behind the historic case, some two thirds of the original pipework was discovered stored in the cathedral’s vault and has been carefully restored in the original case by Ahrend. Its registers have rather more individual character than the Metzler: Wagner studied with Christoph Treutmann, a pupil of Arp Schnitger, and was apprenticed to Gottfried Silbermann for several years. Johnstone promises to find and record on equally suitable historic instruments for the rest of his Bach, and having just returned myself from an organ crawl through North Germany and Holland, I look forward to seeing which instruments he chooses for what. But although the details of the Wagner organ, its pitch and temperament are given, we are left to work out his registration as best we may. I hope Johnstone will consider providing this in the future.

Though the instrument is smaller, I find Johnstone’s registration more characterful than Farr’s, and his liner notes have an interesting and provocative reflection on the possible liturgical and theological rationale behind the selection of works in the Clavier-Übung III. Try and listen to both, and the more suave performance of Farr may win you over; but I gained more from Johnstone’s vivid and sparkling performance on an excellently recorded, crystal-clear organ that was new to me. The choice of instrument, how susceptible it is to being recorded with clarity, how well the performer understands the conventions of registration on a historic instrument – all these are vital for successful interpretation, however fine the player.

David Stancliffe

NOTE: At the time of publishing this post, it was impossible to find internet links for James Johnstone’s CDs… we will attempt to rectify this at a later date.


  1. Jim Humphreys June 29, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    The Metronome label is not being distributed widely these days, but there is actually a current listing on Presto’s page here:

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