J. S. Bach: Complete Organ Works vol.8: Organ Chorales of the Leipzig Manuscript

Edited by Jean-Claude Zehnder.
Breitkopf & Härtel (EB8808),2015. 183pp + CD containing musical texts, commentary & synoptical depiction. €26.80.

I bought the Bärenreiter equivalent (vol. 2) back in 1961, three years after it was published. Bach evidently was expecting to produce a larger work than the six Organ Sonatas, assembled around 1730; he then waited a decade before moving on around 1740, using the same paper. He copied 15 pieces, then had a break. BWV666 and 667 were not copied by Bach. The Leipzig Manuscript is now in the Berlin library, Mus. Ms Bach P 271.

The two editions lay out the music in different ways. Bärenreiter prints the final versions first, then the earlier ones together at the end; Breitkopf places the early versions immediately after each piece. It might, however, have been logical to place the early version first with the final version following, so that the player might think more seriously about the differences. I wonder the extent to which the later versions are always better, or is it an automatic assumption? Bärenreiter is set out more spaciously with 214pp preceded by xiv prelims which include nine pages of facsimile and no introduction: for that and critical comments, etc., you need to buy the Kritischer Bericht, which is in German only. Breitkopf has a single numbering of 183pp, which is cut down by actual pages of music because of 22 opening pages of introduction in German and English and nine facsimiles, leaving a total number of musical pages to 152 – 32 pages fewer than Bärenreiter. I don’t, however, have any problems in reading the Breitkopf. There is a German critical commentary at the end of the volume, but much more information (also in English) as well as additional versions are on a CD-ROM. One difference is the Bärenreiter begins each of the later versions with the chorale melody and first verse, whose absence is a pity.

I happen to have read Bach’s Numbers  by Ruth Tatlow (see the November review by Brian Clark). I’m generally suspicious of number symbols, and the older concepts have been rejected. What Bach is concerned with is the total length, not so much as individual pieces but groups of pieces (e.g. the first 24 preludes and fugues) and the idea is most lengthily shown in the B-minor Mass. The “18” is a dubious choice because nos. 16-18 were written after the composer’s death. I wonder whether the first piece in the collection, Fantasia super Komm, Heiliger Geist, was expanded from 48 to 105 bars as the quickest way to complete the round number. The total bars of any individual chorale is only relevant to the total, and the only round sum covers BWV 651-665. It does seem an odd concept and I can’t take it seriously – the 1200 bars do not help guess how to fit such a length into CD discs. But that Bach wrote “The 15” rather than “The 18” could, even without a total bar count, suggest that BWV 666-668 should be left as an appendix.

I think I would only buy the Breitkopf if I was a scholar or an enthusiast or if my copy was falling apart. I haven’t played a church organ for about 50 years, so my copy is used primarily for listening to recordings (though I rarely do that now). The price of the Bärenreiter volume, although older, is roughly the same figure but in sterling, so Breitkopf is somewhat better economy.

Clifford Bartlett