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Robert Clark & John David Peterson (Organ)

Bach’s Orgelbüchleim and More from Calcante


Orgelbüchlein & More Works by J.S. Bach

Orgelbüchlein, BWV 599-644
Partita on "O Gott, du frommer Gott", BWV 767
Fughetta "Vom Himmel hoch", BWV 701
Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel hoch", BWV 769a

Robert Clark & John David Peterson (Organ)
[Fritts Organ, Arizona State University]


May 1996

2-CD / TT: 11:50:43

Donald Satz wrote (November 14, 2001):
First I'd like to get two loose ends out of the way. Yes, the total time is not generous, but Calcante sells the set for the price of one disc. Second, Clark and Peterson alternate - they never play as a team.The liner notes state that both are the editors of the Orgelbüchlein publication from the Concordia Publishing House. Their close association "made it natural for them to consider making a joint recording of this important work". Well, this might sound natural to some folks, but I'd want my own recording. As I write, I'm picturing 45 different performers waiting their turn to play the next chorale arrangement; at the end of each piece, the designated artist rushes to the organ to start up in a timely manner so that the flow is not interrupted. I'll say no more on the subject.

The building of the Fritts organ at Arizona State University was completed in 1992 and strongly influenced by historic practice. The instrument has a mechanical tracker key action and the style of voicing is similar to the high baroque instruments of Northern Europe. Also, Fritts & Co. played a major role in designing the room housing the organ.

Robert Clark has been in charge of organ instruction at Arizona State University since 1981 and also often gives concerts in the U.S. and Europe. John David Peterson is Professor of Music at the University of Memphis and has had articles published in The Diapason, The American Organist, The Hymn, and Opera Quarterly. Peterson also enjoys singing and is active as a vocal accompanist.

Peterson and Clark play like twin brothers; I honestly can not tell them apart. Separate or together, there are a few reservations about their performances of the Orgelbüchlein which I find reasonable to possess:

1. Insufficient angularity
2. Insufficient vitality
3. rich & oily sound
4. Soft projection

The above problems are so easy to detect when making immediate comparisons with other recorded versions. However, I'm going to go against these comparisons and declare the Clark/Peterson performances of the Orgelbüchlein among the most rewarding I know.

Why? There's a soothing quality to these readings that does not wear out its welcome when listened straight-through. On the contrary, I find myself basking in the performances. This is definitely a situation where the total is greater than the sum of the parts. Both performers are in sync with one another and have an approach which warrants attention. The more I listen, the more I am drawn into their house of security and love. Registrations are always attractive and well matched to the performance style.

The Partita BWV 767 has eight variations. I love the reading from Lionel Rogg where he seeks and finds enlightenment in the 7th variation and then revels in his discovery in the 8th variation. Also, Rogg's registrations are distinctive and add to rhythmic vitality. Much of the work requires a tender touch, and Rogg does not disappoint here either.

Robert Clark has the honors in the Partita, and he plays in similar fashion to his Orgelbüchlein readings. It's a relatively laid-back and lovely performance which does come up with much gusto in the 7th Variation. I would have liked greater severity and strength in the emotionally powerful 6th variation, but that's my only gripe with the interpretation.

The Fughetta BWV 701 presents an interesting situation because of its partner BWV 700. Not only do both share the same text, they also share the same chorale melody. BWV 700 is the ceremonial parter, while BWV 701 is lighter and based on scales and running passages. Together, they provide a nice variety. Our Calcante performance by John David Peterson is only of BWV 701. I really don't see the point of not playing both pieces in conjunction with one another.

Werner Jacobs on his 'complete' set for EMI has both works on the same disc but not one after another. He's one of the few to extend BWV 701 to the two minute range and give it the majesty usually reserved for BWV 700. Although his BWV 701 sounds great, if you play his BWV 700 immediately after, there is a definite lack of diversity.

I use Jacob as an example of the various ways to handle to the programming of Bach's music. Peterson is as slow as Jacobs, but the similarities end there. Jacobs is majesty, Peterson is intimacy. Peterson's textures are quite thin and allow for that encompassing serenity that pervades the 2 discs. Still, I would prefer to have BWV 700 as the companion.

The concluding work, the Canonic Variations BWV 769a, gets the expected reading by Peterson. Intimacy holds it grip, and the results are gratifying and even stunning at times. Please note that BWV 769a contains the same music as BWV 769; the ordering of the five movements is different based on the printed version vs. the autograph. Using BWV 769 as the standard, 769a places the last movement in the middle and ends with the fourth movement. I have to say that Peterson's interpretation of this fourth movement works beautifully as a conclusion. He eschews the bounce that most versions display, and instead gives us a very slow paced and serene atmosphere tinged with subtle longing. Although Helmut Walcha remains my role-model for Canonic Variations, the Peterson reading is a great alternative.

Don's Conclusions: With little exception, Bach organ performances which are soft, smooth, rich, and under-inflated do not get my approval. This Calcante set is one of those exceptions. There's an overall approach to the Orgelbüchlein which is steeped in intimacy and peace. If you only listen to a few chorales at a time, you won't reach the sublime resting place that Peterson and Clark provide. This is definitely a version of the Orgelbüchlein to take in at one sitting. The other three works follow the same intimate conception and are very enjoyable.

I strongly recommend acquisition. The performances are not for those moments when you want to break loose or flex your muscles. They are for times when you just wish to settle in and float on a bed of music which leaves your body and mind at peace. Don't be concerned about snoozing off either. The readings are interesting; the registrations attractive. Get thee to the Calcante website and check it out; the cost is low for all the great music you receive.

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644: Five Recordings of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein | Bach’s Orgelbüchleim and More from Calcante

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