JOHANN SEBASTIAN BACH - Organ Works - Martinikerk Organ, Groningen - Masaaki Suzuki (Organ) - 7318599921112 - Released: October 2015 - BIS SACD2111

1} Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565
2} Pastorale (Pastorella) in F major, BWV590
3} Partite diverse sopra il Corale 'O Gott, du frommer Gott', BWV767
4} Prelude and Fugue in G minor, BWV535
5} Canonic Variations on 'Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her', BWV769
6} Prelude and Fugue in E minor, BWV548

This is a new recording that has been a delight to listen to. Iíll set up a bit of why I can say that wholeheartedly. To make an informed decision about a performance or a recording a critic must have a point of reference. So to set the stage Iíll list what I have owned and listened to over the years. These are the complete sets of organ works by Bach done by the following: Helmut Walcha, Wolfgang Rubsam (Philips and Naxos), Peter Hurford, Simon Preston, Christopher Herrick, Hans Fagius, Andre Isoir, Ton Koopman (1980's version and Teldec version), Wolfgang Stockmeier, Olivier Vernet, Gerhard Weinberger, and Jean Guillou.

Itís in no particular order. And I have recordings of parts of Bachís Organ works by a great many more artists. Some of the sets I have kept, some have been moved out of my collection for better renditions. Some sets are monotonous. Great performances on the same organ for all the works. (Wolfgang Rubsam's first set.) Jean Guillou which I can thoroughly enjoy has some stellar interpretations on Dorian, and some jewels within his Philips set. So this can work with the right organ. Some sets are performed on organs by the same builder. Very same builder. Great performances but not so varied sound. (Christopher Herrick, a wonderful organist and great interpreter, but shackled to the same organs for his series) Others are rattling off the works in order to get on to the next recording. I refer to them as typists. (Olivier Vernet comes to mind as a stellar example of that.) More than thirty years of listening to organ music has made me a little jaded. Have quite a few T-shirts that say been there and done that in the closet! So on to the recommendations.

For clarity of line and learned counterpoint go to Helmut Walcha. For brilliant performance on various organs of great variety and tone colour go to Peter Hurford and Simon Preston. For a variety of organs recorded in great fidelity along with imaginative registrations that sometimes make you rethink your preferences go to Gerhard Weinberger. How about a combination of musicality and recording quality that makes your jaw drop? Jean Guillou on Dorian. ( I know itís a partial set. Still a killer though.)

Some of these recordings are going to be good for as long as people enjoy Bachís organ works. Touchstones to which new aspiring artists will have to live up to, in fact to learn from.

This recording is done on a historical organ in the Netherlands. The Martinikerk in Groningen. Itís a fully restored Schnitger/Hinz organ. That time period is just right in the pinnacle of the Baroque period, and built by one of the finest organ builders of the time. That was just a little while ago. First work by Schnitger was in 1691. So we get to listen to a restored instrument by one of the finest of the organ builders of our time JŁrgen Ahrend. An uncommon man that really understands how to make a pipe organ that does not bear his sonic signature. His restorations are among the most thorough and respectful I have ever listened to. His work quality is legendary.

So great ingredients, knowledgeable people involved all around. What wonders comes from all this preparation?

Now I bring you to a new recording by Masaaki Suzuki. Yes the man who has recorded the complete Bach Cantatas. All of the orchestral works by Bach. All the keyboard works by Bach. You could say that he has a good understanding of the music of Bach. And a rare understanding at that. How so? Simply put there is playing the notes. And there is making music. Similar to a good public speaker who uses pitch, pace and power to convey a line of reasoning, a great musician can use a variety of tools to produce something unique and extra-ordinary. I have recordings of this very organ. And none of them have the tone colour or the realistic microphone pickup of this recording. That is a tribute to Masaaki Suzuki and his ability to listen to the instrument and use his knowledge of registration. It is also a testament to the ability of Hans Kipfer as a recording engineer.

Our recording starts off with the forever recorded all time best seller the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565. Actually the first bit of organ music most people are exposed to. Recorded to death? Yep. But. Yes there is a but. There are some interesting renditions that I still enjoy. I now have one more. Masaaki uses quite a bit of planning in this piece. The registrations are bold, the timing is quick but not laboured. And I like what I hear. It keeps you interested, waiting to hear what comes next. Hard to do with a piece this well known.

The Pastoral in F Major BWV 590. Masaaki Suzuki takes this piece and creates a brilliant concise rendering that is both interesting and familiar. His registration choices are not too common. And are a joy to listen to. Iíll look at but a few more works on this disc. The Partite Diverse BWV767. Itís a set of variations that are just begging to be exploited by a performer who understands how to set up the organ voices or registration and perform at a pace that keeps us in anticipation. A variation is a resetting of a theme in a manner that is different from the theme, and yet has enough similarity of the primary tune to still remind a listener of the original theme. To work out a good performance of a variation there are a few tools to take off the bench and put into use. Some variations are of a delicate sort, and lend themselves to a very light sound. Track 10 variation number 4 is a perfect example. Two disparate tonal effects that come together in a wonderful complement. Track 14 is another example of quiet thought. That is variation number 8. And yes that little chuffing in the background is supposed to be there. It is an effect called tremolo that produces a gentle fluttering of the sound. The Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel Hoch BWV 769. Some of J.S. Bachís most learned music. Listen to it and see! Not so stuffy after all. It is a strict set of imitative variations on the original theme. But it is eminently listenable music. One of my favourite sets of variations. Our theme is first heard in the left hand in the original variation. Yep tutti flutti. Floating around and darting all over the place. Speed in performance that is subjected to the fluidity of thought in the first variation. To play this with a proper amount of feeling for the phrasing and musical lines requires a performer to be intimately aware of the voices that are speaking, what they have to say that adds to the delivery of the conversation and when they are supporting members of the ensemble. This has been artfully accomplished in this set. I can almost say that a conductor has listened to and advised on the choices of what works best sonically in regards to the voices of the organ, and what pace and phrasing best serves the music. Last piece to be looked at is the Prelude and Fugue in E Minor. It is a large scale work. Big and powerful in line and concept. Itís performance has been accomplished with thoughtful attention to the phrasing of the line driving the melody. There is a careful but not driving syncopation that propels each bar ahead towards the fugue. Many a performer has been tempted to set up all the big guns and take off in a flurry. Masaaki Suzuki has a much better way to approach this piece. I have heard this particular piece played much more slowly and at times more quickly. This is one of the best balanced performances that I have. You have a good setup of the organs plenum sound with utmost attention to how the voices must sound out throughout the entire piece. No one part overpowers the other, and yet there is a great wall of sound to listen to. Just marvellous!

So we have a great list of performers at the beginning. You might be wondering where I place Master Suzuki?

Panache of Guillou, with the clarity of Walcha and the timing of Hurford.

This is hopefully the first Volume of quite a few more. Gets two thumbs up from me.

Try it. You will be both pleased and schooled at the same time. Because performances like this are very few, and all to far between.

Below is a video clip, courtesy of Fugue State Films, which well demonstrates this instrument's clear and distinct sound.

Mark Kravchenko - January 2016