Bine Katrine Bryndorf (Organ)
Cristina Garcia Banegas (Organ)
Peter Sykes (Organ)
Three Recent Recordings of Bach's Leipzig Chorales, Part 2
Continue from Part 1
Donald Satz wrote (February 11, 2002):
Nun Komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 - This chorale and the next two are based on an Advent hymn, "Now come the gentiles' Saviour". BWV 659 has the determination of a reawakening in its soul. The cantus firmus is richly ornamented, the middle voices weave their way through the music's fabric, and the pedal provides a strong and striding bass in quavers.
There are quite a few superb recorded versions including Peter Hurford, Nicholas White on Pro Organo, and Claudia Dumschat also on Pro Organo. Hurford is like a gentle giant with a slow paced, comforting yet fully determined and confident approach. White shaves more than a minute from Hurford's five minute reading; White's embellished melody rings out beautifully and strongly; its clarity is exceptional. Ms. Dumchat introduces a sublime sense of yearning to the music along with an embellished melody fully the equal of White's; hers is the most gorgeous
version I know.
Bine Katrine Bryndorf goes to the top of the charts with a performance that delivers everything all the other great versions provide with the added attraction of the most rock-solid pedal bass imaginable. She strides forward with the utmost determination. Yet, she also gives us all the poignancy and beauty the music has to offer. This is 'desert island' material for sure.
Cristina Garcia Banegas is no slouch in the above company. She is as slow as Hurford but much less demonstrative. Her main virtue is the high degree of comfort she brings to the piece. However, her embellished melody lacks that last ounce of beauty and does suffer some for it.
Peter Sykes gives us the most recessed and laid-back ornamented melody possible; actually, his whole performance is in this mode. I could call it comforting like the Banegas reading, but the 'snooze' factor tends to take over.
Trio super Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 660 - What we have here are two bass voices chewing away at one another while the chorale melody rises above it all in the soprano voice. The liner notes to the Herrick set mention the 'tortuous' exchange between the bass voices. But Herrick doesn't come close to being tortuous. That distinction resides solely with Hans Fagius. It's as if he's awakening Satan. His reading is quite severe and very fast as well. I don't usually take well to Fagius, but his BWV 660 is a sinister and charged delight. Bryndorf and Banegas come closer to the Fagius approach than any other versions I know, but they are still a distance behind. Peter Sykes is on the benign side; that's a condition he shares with most other recorded performances, and I think little of it.
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 661 - This third treatment of the Advent hymn is the most powerful and majestic, as the manuals engage in a fugal celebration while the pedal carries the cantus firmus and the thunderous arrival of God. Two versions, Rogg and Herrick, are sensational. Herrick reveals his wild side with a vengence; he takes the music to the edge of the cliff with his nearly out-of-control manuals. The precision of Rogg's performance is stunning as he muscles and twists his way to God; also, the thunder of his reading has no peers.
None of the three versions for review approaches the effectiveness of Rogg or Herrick. Bryndorf is on the benign side, Banegas is quite slow with reduced urgency, and the very smooth legato of Sykes diminishes the detail necessary to fully appreciate the piece. Ultimately, each of the three is too reserved and a little slack.
Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 662 - This treatment starts off another set of three pieces relating to the same chorale. There are two features which strike me the most about BWV 662. First, it is one of Bach's most beautiful creations; the highly ornate chorale melody is in the soprano, the middle voices provide the diverse counterpoint, and the pedal gives us a strong and confident underpinning. Second, I've never heard a version which wasn't excellent. The music seems to play itself, and even I can do a decent job with it (a true rarity).
The emotional foundation of BWV 662 is serenity. Interpretations range from highly reverential to ones exuding confidence. Since "God is pleased with us", either route is appropriate. Among our three versions being reviewed, the most likely candidate to convey abundant confidence would be Bryndorf; that's just how she approaches the work and the performance is superb. Banegas is basically half-way between reverence and confidence; Sykes offers all the reverence one could want. Although all three versions are very rewarding, I do prefer the confidence and stature of Bryndorf.
Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 663 - More vibrant than BWV 662, this work is a fugal trio with the chorale melody in the tenor voice instead of the soprano. I find Bryndorf and Sykes to offer the best versions I know. Sykes is very quick and urgent with a fantastic sounding chorale melody, and Bryndorf is excellently projected and majesterial. Banegas is her usual slow-paced self with a vibrancy which can't match Sykes or Bryndorf.
Allein Gott in der Hoh sei Ehr, BWV 664 - The music seems to come down from the highest peak of Heaven; its etheral qualities can not be denied. BWV 664 is quite a bouncy and cheerful piece of music; I can't stop moving while listening. Christopher Herrick is quick and light as a feather in a performance which would appeal to everyone. Hans Fagius does very well with a slower tempo and more interesting registrations than Herrick. My favorite is probably the Lionel Rogg reading which is quick, loaded with energy, and rather demonstrative.
Any version of BWV 664 which extends well beyond five minutes is definitely on the slow side, and Jacob extends to almost six minutes. Overall, I find that the slow pacing robs the music of its vitality. One could expect that Christina Garcia Benegas would also occupy the six minute range, and she certainly does. However, her performance is much more enjoyable than the Jacobs. The organ and registrations are delightful; I can well imagine her music coming from that heavenly peak. Essentially, she makes the slower tempo an ally and highlights every detail of the music.
Bryndorf is also relatively slow in BWV 664 with an attractive, vital, and upbeat performance. However, I do prefer Banegas with her exceptional detailing of every voice. I also prefer Banegas to Peter Sykes whose performance is quite similar to Rogg's except that Rogg displays greater exuberance.
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, BWV 665 - This and BWV 666 are different settings of the same chorale having the theme of Christ's suffering saving humans from the pain of Hell. Bach gives each line of the chorale a fugal treatment. The first is represented by dotted rhythms and could signify the emotion of anger. The second is highly chromatic and denotes turmoil and perhaps torment, while the third is brighter in tone and well reflects the release from torment.
BWV 665 is relatively severe music, and most versions either give it the fully severe treatment or lighten it up a little through a highly legato approach. Hans Fagius is a good example of the former with Christopher Herrick representing the latter approach. Fagius is sharp with a pronounced articulation; Herrick flows evenly with reduced articulation although he is more expressive and majesterial than Fagius.
I love the Herrick version, but not because it's legato nature is strong; Herrick gives the piece such an honorable and ceremonial presentation that this listener can not resist. A mid-way performance between Fagiand Herrick comes from Ton Koopman, and he essentially incorporates all the best features of the Fagius and Herrick versions. All three have in common a granite strength, tremendous muscle, and a delicious blend of severity and inspiration. Just as an aside, Peter Hurford uses what I'd call 'funky' registrations which lead me to smile through the performance; that can't be good, can it?
Well, there's nothing funky about the three versions being reviewed, but one of them is about the slowest I've ever heard. That would of course be Christina Garcia Banegas, and I have a version from Gustav Leonhardt which falls into the same tempo category and is an iluminating comparison issue. Leonhardt displays all the excellent virtues mentioned above with a slower speed which allows the listener to savor the music; with the savoring as an added attraction, Leonhardt's is the version of BWV 665 I have liked the most.
Banegas, unlike Leonhardt, uses a jagged rhythmic pattern which is quite distinctive and enhances severity. Considering that Banegas conveys plenty of power and majesty, it's certainly one of the better performances on record. The best part of the interpretation for me is the 'torment' section; all that chromatism combined with the jagged rhythm really does produce torment. Yet, there's one aspect that keeps Banegas behind the front lane; the inspiration is rather low.
Peter Sykes gives a slowish and fantastic performance of BWV 665. The man extends his reach to Heaven and Hell, leaving all in his wake. The granite strength is in abundance, the expressiveness of the interpretation can't be matched, and the registrations are just unusual enough to be enticing and of great impact. Sykes doesn't use a jagged rhythmic pattern, but the type I like to refer to as "side-ways"; that's quite distinctive as well. This is the best performance by Sykes on his recording of the Leipzig Chorales.
I realize that I've spent much time on BWV 665, but it's such a tremendous outpouring of music that I haven't been able to exercise restraint. There is one remaining version, that from Bine Katrine Bryndorf. Since Bryndorf certainly has power, severity, and majesty, I expected at least an excellent interpretation. Expectations were met beautifully, but I still prefer the slower Sykes reading.
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, BWV 666 - This treatment is more optimistic than BWV 665 and has the cantus firmus in the soprano voice. The music is gigue-like and becomes more uplifting as it progresses through each line of text. As a counter-weight to the very severe previous setting, I pefer as much optimism as possible out of BWV 666. Jacob, Koopman, and Herrick are among the best at maximizing the positive themes of the music; Jacob even adds a subtle mystery to the first section. However, all must bow to Lionel Rogg whose exceptionally detailed and fluid reading provides a comfort and sprituality the alternative versions can only hint at.
Rogg's performance makes the reading from Banegas sound sullen and discouraging; it's as if someone let all the air out of the party. Bryndorf is more upbeat, but her registrations result in a rather thick sound. Peter Sykes gives the best performance of the three contenders; his relaxed approach provides a comfort which only Rogg can equal.
Gott Schopfer, Heiliger Geist, BWV 667 - This is one of Bach's most joyous pieces in the set as God spreads his mercy on all. The music is also quick and full of zest. With Bryndorf or Banegas as our guides, we would hardly think that God was spreading anything favorable. Bryndorf is rather unmusical, loud, and thick. Banegas takes an unusual turn as she provides a quicker tempo than expected; it sounds rushed to me and creates a loss of fluidity.
Although not quite as effective as my favorite version of BWV 667 from Dietrich Wagler on Motette, Peter Sykes uses delightful registrations which well convey the joy and energy of the music.
BWV 668 - This is where Bryndorf gets off the ship. As I remarked in Part 1, her reasons for excluding the piece warrant merit. However, she doesn't even provide any other music from Bach to make up for it. I think that the majority of folks interested in a set of the Leipzig Chorales would want BWV 668, so Bryndorf's set has to lose significant points here.
My standard for BWV 668 comes from Gustav Leonhardt on Teldec. Most recorded versions tend to treat the work like a gloom-infested death bed scene. I find Leonhardt much more attractive as he gives the music a majestic and positive outlook; with Leonhardt, Bach is coming to God with his best foot forward and welcoming his eternity in Heaven. Banegas and Sykes may be trying to be uplifting, but both use dark and gloomy registrations which take over the music.
Summary: Although none of the three sets is an essential acquisition, the Bryndorf and Sykes recordings have much to offer. Bryndorf's penchant is to emphasize the ceremonial elements of Bach's music, and she often does so magnificently. On the debit side, there are a few chorales where she doesn't dig sufficiently into the music's emotional core; also, there's that missing BWV 668.
Peter Sykes is more of an intimate performer. There are times when I find him too laid-back, but he has the advantage of a wonderful modern organ. Also, his registrations are frequently unusual and enticing.
I am skeptical of the Banegas set. Her tempos are generally among the slowest on record, and she doesn't have the ability of a Rosalyn Tureck to locate new insights at such slow speeds. Instead of insights, a feeling of lethargy can set in. Those who like a steady diet of slow pacing and subdued moods might think much better of the Banegas set than I do.
What are the essential recordings of the Leipzig Chorales? My preferences are with Lionel Rogg and Helmut Walcha. If you want quite a few versions in your library, either Bryndorf or Sykes would be fine additions.
Three Recent Recordings of Bach's Leipzig Chorales: Part 1 | Part 2