Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
"The Poet Musician"
Choral Preludes from Orgelbuchlein: BWV 641, 640, 642,
636, 643 and 644 [7:46]
Piece d'Orgue, BWV 572 [9:18]
Kyrie-Christe-Kyrie from Clavier-Ubung III: BWV 669-671 [13:50]
Trio Sonata No. 4 in E minor, BWV 528 [11:09]
"An Wasserflussen Babylon", BWV 653 [5:52]
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 [13:38]
"Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit", BWV 668 [5:04]
Recorded on Silbermann Organ 1741,
St. Thomas Church, Strasbourg, May 2000
Editions Hortus HORTUS 020 [67:25]
Orgelbuchlein Pieces - Preston/Deutsche Grammophon, Rogg/Harmonia Mundi,
Saorgin/Harmonia Mundi, Weinberger/CPO, Zerer/Hanssler
Piece d'Orgue - Leonhardt/Sony(Seon)
Clavier-Ubung III Pieces - Rogg/Harmonia Mundi, Suzuki/BIS
Trio Sonata in E minor - Kee/Chandos, Rogg/Harmonia Mundi
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor - Biggs/Sony
BWV 653 - Schweitzer/Pearl, Sykes/Raven
BWV 668 - Leonhardt/Sony(Seon)
Reviewers sometimes have to deal with the issue of how many times
to listen to an unrewarding set of performances before declaring it
not worthy of reader investigation. One of the major problems in this
process is that the reviewer can't be sure that the 'next hearing' will
not change the perception, that a light might turn on that makes the
performances much more appealing.
The above considerations were on my mind when listening to the Editions
Hortus release of Bach organ works performed by Francois Menissier on
the historical Andreas Silbermann organ at the St. Thomas Church in
Strasbourg. Through about seven listenings, I was nearly convinced that
Menissier's readings were not recommendable for reasons having to do
with my traditional preferences in this repertoire. Menissier favors
rounded contours and smooth musical lines; I tend to prefer sharper-edged
and more angular interpretations. While Menissier offers highly devotional
readings of the works related to religious text, I favor a more celebratory
style. Lastly, Menissier's soundstage is not well-defined and is often
muddy in bass response; my tastes involve a cleaner acoustic that allows
for fine detail to come though.
After listening to the disc a few times and becoming increasingly
frustrated, I decided to set it aside and come back to it a couple of
weeks later. When I did, a warm glow started building in my heart and
I am now quite smitten with the interpretations. Why the change of mind?
Clearly, I was allowing my traditional preferences to obscure the excellent
aspects of the performances. Menissier's style is highly lyrical,
routinely bringing out all the beauty of Bach's music. The rhythmic
flow is very appealing, and the readings are among the most comforting
on record. At the same time, Menissier easily adapts to the more majestic
requirements such as in the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The most
rewarding feature is what I refer to as the "Papa Bach" effect where the
composer seems to beckon us with outstretched arms to enter his world
of security and enlightenment. This effect is not as strong as in the
Gillian Weir performances on Priory that I reviewed for MusicWeb in
February 2004, but it remains highly effective.
Here is a more detailed account of Menissier's performances:
Orgelbuchlein Pieces - Bach's "Little Organ Book" consists of 45 short
chorales mainly having the cantus firmus in the soprano voice with the
lower voices acting as counterpoint to the chorale melodies. Menissier's
interpretations are exceptional and stand tall next to the fine versions
noted in the heading.
Among the highlights, Menissier invests BWV 641 with the poignant beauty
conveyed by the circulating and embellished soprano voice. His BWV 640
is the most ominous sounding I know, a quality previously reserved for
the Gerhard Weinberger account on CPO; in most versions, the music has
a 'reach out to God' sensibility, but Menissier urgently reaches for
the dark side of the universe with his rumbling bass line and incisive
accenting from the soprano voice. Other highlights include the muscular
BWV 642 where Menissier bristles with darker hues than in the exceptional
Simon Preston version and the reverential BWV 636 with its strong upper
voice and irresistible rhythmic patterns.
Piece d'Orgue - Also known as the Fantasia in G major, this is the only
Bach organ work having a French title. In three sections, the work leads
from the style of a Fantasia with arpeggios to a majestic five-part
Allabreve, then concludes with another section of arpeggios much more
stern than in the first section. For many years, my favored version has
been from Gustav Leonhardt whose regal Allabreve and swirling and crisp
arpeggios bring out all the splendor of the music. Menissier's account
is a close second with its thoroughly uplifting Allabreve and arpeggios
not quite as detailed as Leonhardt's.
Clavier-Ubung III Pieces - Sometimes referred to as the German Organ
Mass, this body of music consists of the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 acting
as bookends, twenty-one chorale preludes, and the Four Duets BWV 802-805.
Menissier has selected to play the first three chorale preludes which
form a unified and progressive entity in Latin liturgy. Musically, each
prelude is more intense, determined, and inevitable than the previous,
culminating in the colossal strength and spirituality of BWV 671.
My reference versions come from Lionel Rogg and Masaaki Suzuki. Both
organists fully convey the emotional depth and majesty of the music,
with Suzuki being the more severe and powerful. Menissier's interpretations
are of equal reward, the main difference being that he is much slower
in BWV 669; this allows for a highly devotional reading that exudes
Trio Sonata in E minor - Menissier immediately makes contact in the
four-measure opening Adagio with a heart-wrenching sadness followed by
the energetic Vivace. In the second movement Andante, Menissier employs
delectable registrations to highlight the uplifting nature of the music.
Best of all is the third movement Un poco allegro where Menissier offers
the most vibrant and rhythmically active account I have ever heard,
surpassing the exciting performance by Lionel Rogg. I think Menissier
has struck gold with this work as he gets the most out of the Silbermann
organ's impressive resources.
Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor - One of the most inspired works for
variations over a repeating bass line melody. This is a colossal piece,
and it becomes increasingly massive as each variation unfolds. I consider
the E. Power Biggs version a wonder to behold with its tremendous
strength, inevitability, and lyricism. In effect, Biggs gives us a blend
of severity and beauty second to none. Although Menissier doesn't quite
reach the exalted level occupied by Biggs, he certainly provides the
massive qualities of Bach's music with the stern demeanor required of
BWV 653 & 668 - These are two of Bach's collection of eighteen chorale
preludes known as the Leipzig Chorales. Actually, they were conceived
during Bach's years at Weimar and later revised toward the end of his
life. Also, the last piece, BWV 668, was never intended to be part of
the cycle and was left incomplete after the first 26 bars.
BWV 653 is Israel's lament for being exiled to Babylon. The music has
a smooth sarabande rhythm that well handles the regal treatment of Albert
Schweitzer's historical performance and the intimacy of the Peter Sykes
rendition. Menissier "splits the difference" between the Schweitzer and
Sykes versions, offering a fine conversational approach.
A common report is that Bach was working on BWV 668 at his deathbed.
The religious text reads, "Before thy throne I now appear", and it seems
a most appropriate conclusion to a fantastic life of music. Bach goes
out with an attitude steeped in confidence, nobility, and a comforting
glow reflecting his life of homage and celebration of God. This is where
Leonhardt enters the picture with a role-model performance conveying the
upcoming communion between Bach and his maker. The dignity of his
interpretation has no peers.
So many other recorded versions treat the music as a gloom-infested
deathbed scene; Leonhardt has Bach coming to God with his head held high
and the knowledge that he has led a life worthy of entrance to Heaven.
I can't say that Menissier's reading fully possesses the uplifting quality
of Leonhardt's, but it's an excellent interpretation putting a positive
light on Bach's journey and deliverance.
The Silbermann organ at Strasbourg is a fine equal-temperament instrument
renovated in the mid-1800's by Martin Wetzel and in 1979 by Alfred Kern.
However, it doesn't have the woodsy tone of the North German Silbermann
organ, favoring a luxurious sound that combines with a high level of
reverberation to diminish the clarity and distinction of Bach's counterpoint.
Conversely, the richness of the organ plays well into Menissier's
devotional and lyrical approach to Bach.
Don's Conclusions: Menissier's performances definitely hold their own
when compared to the better Bach organ recordings in the catalogues.
I would strongly recommend the disc except for my skepticism that the
Silbermann/Strasbourg organ and venue are good choices for a Bach program.
Those readers who favor smooth performances and a good deal of reverberation
could well be thrilled with the disc. I do have to caution that the
booklet notes and texts for the chorales are in French and German only.
One thing is for sure - Francois Menissier is a major Bach performing
artist who deserves our attention.
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