Kuhnau: Complete organ music

Stefano Molardi (Silbermann organs, Freiberg Cathedral (1714) & Marienkirche in Rötha (1722))
220:10 (3 CDs)
Brilliant Classics 95089

Johann Kuhnau was the revered predecessor of Bach at Leipzig, and Bach reissued his Clavier-übung there shortly before he began to publish his own collection. A remarkable polymath, Kuhnau studies and wrote on Hebrew and Greek as well as more modern texts, and is probably best known now for his motets like Tristis est anima mea, which Bach incorporated into one of his composite Passions, and the cantatas like Gott, sei mir gnädig for four part voices and five-part strings or Uns ist ein Kind geoboren (formerly attributed to Bach as BVW 142).

But his keyboard works are many and diverse and among them the most distinctive are the six Sonate Bibliche, published in 1700 and achieving considerable commercial success. Kuhnau did not specify which type of keyboard might be suitable for which sonata, but here they are all played on the Gottfried Silbermann organ of the Dom in Freiberg which dates from 1714, where Elias Lindner, Kuhnau’s pupil, was the organist. Some of the smaller works included on these three discs together with the seven sonatas of the Frische Clavier Früchte are played on the single manual Silbermann organ of 1722 in the Marienkirche at Rötha. These sound more like a set of instrumental sonatas in the style of Corelli, while the larger Biblical Sonatas have a more mixed parentage that combines Buxtehude with a more naturalistic, Italianate, descriptive style.

The subjects of the Biblical Sonatas are all Old Testament in character, revealing Kuhnau’s interest in Hebrew, and are I imagine what the composer might have improvised had the great Silbermann organ been set up in the cinema of the day. Lots of flashing D major arpeggios and trumpet calls are the prelude to martial music celebrating David’s triumph over Goliath and the Philistines, or Gideon’s surprise attack. This is frankly rather predicable extemporisation! Rather more interesting are the sombre scenes – Saul’s rage and David’s soothing harp-playing; or the Tomb of Jacob, where we hear some of the melodic lines for which Kuhnau was famous, Hezekiah’s lament, which has some sustained development of a musical theme rather than a few conventional rhetorical flourishes, and some imaginative use being made of the strings, flutes and reeds for which the organ is renowned. Snatches of Lutheran chorales float over the Hebrew landscape like birds of prey, waiting for the kill. But overall, I found the playing, though worthy and accurate, rather uninspiring. Only Silbermann’s Vox Humana and a breathtakingly slow-beating tremulant depicting ‘The Burial of Israel, and the Sorrowful Lament of Those Present’ made me sit up. This is vulgar programme music, and it needs more of an extrovert showman to bring off its rather conventional gestures.

Stefano Molardi has recorded a lot for Brilliant Classics, including the whole of Bach. Those who have no other keyboard music by Kuhnau and are keen to understand the surprisingly broad range of keyboard music being published as J. S. Bach was getting into his stride will be glad to have these CDs, played on this wonderful organ. Those whose interests are less specialised may want to sample them before committing to this substantial listen.

David Stancliffe