Bach: Concertos for Organ and Strings

Les Muffatti, Bart Jacobs
Ramée RAM1804

This is an interesting and beautifully produced CD, combining three elements: ingenious scholarship, a fine organ and excellent playing.

First, what are these organ concertos by Bach? There are none – or rather, none that survive in that precise form. But both Bart Jacobs the organist and Christof Wolff the scholar have hit on the same supposition: that the concert Bach gave on the new Silbermann organ in the Sophienkirche in Dresden in 1725, where a newspaper review says that Bach ‘performed various concertos with sweet underlying instrumental music’, might well have contained movements drawn from earlier instrumental concerti composed at Köthen and Weimar, some of which have survived in later concerti for harpsichord; and another potential source could be movements that found a home in the series of cantatas written in 1726 that feature the organ as a solo instrument either in a concerto-like sinfonia or sometimes as a melodic alternative to a wind instrument in arias. So the prime source for quarrying these ‘concertos for organ and strings’ are the church cantatas BWV 169, 40, 146, 188, and 35; with sinfonias from BWV 156, 75, 29 and 120a. There are just four movements drawn from harpsichord or violin concertos in addition, and some of this assemblage has been transposed up or down a tone to help it fit a group of movements.

Second, this CD was recorded using the fine Thomas organ in the church in Bornem, not far from the Thomas organ-building works in Southeastern Belgium.  This ingenious instrument, after the organ for Rötha near Leipzig that Silbermann built in 1721/2 and which must have been known to Bach, offers a system of jeux baladeurs – a number of ranks that can be played by transmission on more than one key- or pedal-board. Its position on the floor of the north transept allows the strings and harpsichord to group around it easily and ensures a unanimity between organ and instruments that is rare – though perhaps unsurprising in view of Bart Jacobs impressive playing in the CD of Bach Cantatas produced under the title Actus Tragicus with Vox Luminis in 2017. A description and full specification together with detailed registration is included, and I can vouch for the quality of the instrument and the excellence of the acoustic as I played it in 2014. I particularly liked the registration for the slow movements incorporating the 8’ Dulcian, the languid tremulant and the versatile Nasat. 

Third, the quality of playing, the balance between the instruments and the apt registration are splendid. The organ is not over-strident, and the registrations provide both blend and clarity: no wonder Bach must have prized Silbermann’s instruments. The only drawback is that the organ’s pitch of A=440 Hz means that no wind instruments playing at 415 can be included, which were a feature of a good number of the cantata movements. And the use of the organ pedal 16’ from time to time seems plausible, though the string 16’ is a robust contrabasso rather than an edgy violone. But that aside, I find the arrangements and performance highly convincing and entirely in the style and spirit of Bach’s own multiple borrowings and rearrangements. I recommend this novel and delightful performance and hope that Bart Jacobs will publish his versions so that others can play them.

David Stancliffe

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