J.S. Bach Organ Sonatas

John Miller

A warm welcome to the first full set of Bach's Organ Sonatas to appear on SA-CD. Often incorrectly called ‘Trio Sonatas’ (strictly a Baroque term for a four movement solo instrument sonata with two or three continuo parts), Bach himself described them as ‘Sonata à 2 for Clav: et Pedal’ on his MSS. They date from around 1727 when Bach was Music Director at Leipzig, and were almost certainly compiled as a teaching manual for aspiring organists, particularly his son Wilhelm Friedemann. Only the 6th sonata BWV 530 was entirely conceived for organ, the others contain borrowings from earlier Bach chamber works.

The six sonatas each comprise three movements, generally in fast-slow-fast sequence, and reflect the influence of Corelli and Vivaldi, although they go far beyond these models in their technical and expressive range. Designed as training for the full independence of an organist's hands and feet, they are still used to prepare players for most of the technical challenges they might meet. At the same time, they are musical jewels, with delightfully vivacious dancing movements and soulfully contemplative slow interludes. Although the King of Instruments is renowned for its awesome roars, these sonatas show its other persona, that of quieter, intimate beauty in its variety of subtle tonal combinations. The organ sonatas are a dazzling display of Bach's ceaseless flow of contrapuntal genius. And all this achieved with great economy of means.

In his booklet note, Christopher Wrench tells us that from the first moment he played the reconstructed organ at Darnison's Kirke organ in Copenhagen, he dreamt of recording the organ sonatas on the instrument. Built in 1995, the Carsten Lund organ is a historical reconstruction of the original 1724 instrument by Schnitger's pupil Lambert Daniel Kastens. It has three manuals with an agile, light mechanical action and power from three wedge bellows. There is a good range of stops including many characterful solos which feature on this recording. A full specification is included in the booklet together with a list of Christopher Wrench's registrations for each movement. An imposing photograph in the booklet shows the organ to be enclosed in a typically ornate rococo-style towered case including a clock.

My reference recording for this lovely set of sonatas has long been Ton Koopman's on the organ of the Waalse Kerk, Amsterdam, (RBCD, Archiv) ... Christopher Wrench makes the most of his organ's fresh-sounding and transparent solo stop combinations in a grippingly consistent and infectious reading. His lines are generally more legato than Koopman's, and his concentration in the seemingly endless Bachian stream-of-consciousness melodies of the slow movements is both moving and rhythmically compelling. Registrations are generally somewhat lighter than Koopman's (less use of 16' pedal tones) and often more intimate in character, matching left hand and right hand parts with more closely-related stops. In quick movements his rhythms are well-sprung and infectious, with discreetly-added ornamentation (mainly cadential) echoing that prescribed by the composer. For these sonatas, Bach indicates repeats less often than usual in such pieces. Wrench is somewhat selective (as is Koopman), but still the disc runs to a generous 77:45 ...

Melba's Digipac production is exemplary, and I must commend Marc Rochester's scholarly and informative history of BWV 525-530's genesis.

With Christopher Wrench's bravura and humanity matched with a distinguished high-resolution recording, this is a set of Bach organ sonatas to be enjoyed like a fine Australian wine.