J. M. Bach | J. Ch. Bach: Complete Organ Music

Stefano Molardi Volckland organ (Cruciskirche, Erfurt)
211:56 (3 CDs in a box)
Brilliant Classics 95418

The indefatigable Stefano Molardi, who recorded all J. S. Bach’s organ music for Brilliant Classics in 2013 and all Kuhnau in 2015, has given us the complete surviving organ music by two of the early Bach family organists, the bothers Johann Christoph and Johann Michael Bach. They worked throughout the latter half of the 17th century in Thuringia, and their works are substantially in that school of organ composition we associate with Johann Pachelbel. From J. C. there is a Prelude and Fugue and some sets of variations in the Pachelbel style, but the remainder of his work and all of J. M.’s is a variety of chorale preludes, largely with the initial voices in pre-imitation followed by the chorale melody in the cantus firmus. Such works, frequently improvised, were the bread and butter of a Lutheran organist’s weekly liturgical performance, introducing the chorale and setting the context for the congregation’s singing.

On that account alone, this would be a welcome production in the anniversary year of Luther’s reformation. But it also introduces us to the sound-world in which Bach grew up. The Bach families were entwined, and Johann Sebastian’s first wife was the daughter of J. M., and Arnstadt and Eisenach was where they lived and worked. This was what Bach heard in church, Sunday by Sunday.

The other significant factor is the instrument chosen for this recording: the cherished Volckland organ, built in 1732-7 for the Cruciskirche in Erfurt after its major rebuilding. Although the booklet gives the specification of the organ, reconstructed and restored by Schuke of Potsdam in 2000-03, the organ builder’s website is surprisingly reticent about how much work was conservation and how much was ‘reconstruction’. While it seems to me to be a very satisfactory representative of the early 18th-century Thuringian school of organ building, the recording is not so clean as to make each combination of registers clear, and we are given the registration for none of the 131 tracks, which is a pity since there are no less than five 8’ registers on the Hauptwerk besides the perky Vox Humana – the only manual reed. Choosing a registration is a significant part of the organist’s interpretative skill. The instrument is just slightly anachronistic, and I wonder if one from the 1670s or 80s might not have been better.

But this is a significant and timely recording. It could have been both recorded and presented better, but I hope that all students of Bach’s compositional technique will profit from the insights it delivers.

David Stancliffe