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Simon Preston, Rene Saorgin, Wolfgang Zerer, Werner Jacob, Lionel Rogg (Organ)

Five Recordings of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein

Contents

Recordings
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3


Recordings

1

Orgelbüchlein

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Simon Preston (organ)

Deutsche Grammophon

Sep 1989 + Nov 1997

CD / TT: 66:37

2

Orgelbüchlein

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Rene Saorgin (organ)

Harmonia Mundi

1982

CD / TT: 79:02

3

Edition Bachakademie Vol. 94

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Wolfgang Zerer (organ)

Hänssler

 

CD / TT:

4

The Organ Works, Disc 3

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Werner Jacob (organ)

EMI

1980

2-CD / TT: 74:58 +

Part of 16 disc set

5

Orgelbüchlein

Orgelbüchlein BWV 599-644

Lionel Rogg (organ)

Harmonia Mundi

1970

12-CD / TT:

Part of 12 disc set


Part 1

Donald Satz wrote (September 5, 2001):
Bach's 'Orgelbüchlein' (Little Organ Book)consists of 45 short chorales mainly based on the cantus firmus in the soprano with the lower voices acting as counterpoint to the chorale melody. Four-part composition is prevalent as well as the pedal providing only an obbligato contribution.Actually, Bach's original intent was for this body of works to have 164 musical pieces. However, 45 pieces seems quite sufficient.

The 45 pieces are in a hymn-book sequence: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Passion, Easter, Pentecost, Order of Service, Catechism, Faith in God, and Death/Eternity.

The five recordings for your consideration are:

Simon Preston - Deutsche Grammophon 431816
Rene Saorgin - Harmonia Mundi 2951215
Wolfgang Zerer- Hänssler 92094
Werner Jacob - EMI 73878 - Part of 16 disc set
Lionel Rogg - Harmonia Mundi 290772.83 - Part of 12 disc set

A few words about the performers. All but Zerer have major reputations. He is one of a few organists that Hänssler recruited to contribute to its Bach Anniversary Complete Edition. Perhaps because of Hänssler's artistic preferences, each of the recruits has a penchant for strong, muscular, and sharp performances - sort of the massive approach. I tend to like this approach very much. However, there are limits. Poetry can be hard to emphasize, darkness can fall quickly, and a steady diet of stern interpretations can be tiring. Zerer exhibits all these 'Hänssler' traits, and how he handles them determines the value of his recording.

The first four chorale arrangements are for Advent:

BWV 599 - Slow and devotional, this piece is very calming. Rogg is about perfect with a mesmorizing ending which seems to last much longer than in the other versions. Preston is quicker but in the same ballpark except his ending has no impact - it''s fast passing and rather ordinary. Saorgin is on the slow side and similar to Rogg except for an ordinary conclusion. Jacob is the quickest of the five, perhaps a little too quick. It's not a calming reading but is more rhythmically alert that the others. Using an average tempo, Zerer has some of Jacob's animation but is entirely calming, satisfying, and devotional.

BWV 600 - A joyfully restrained and swirling piece. Rogg and Saorgin are excellent contrasts. With Saorgin, the voices are not as distinct as in Rogg's performance; the swirling sensation is reduced as is some of the potential enjoyment. Zerer is too relaxed; I much prefer Rogg's greater animation. Preston isn't as detailed as Rogg but displays plenty of energy. Jacob is quick and it doesn't sound natural, only rushed.

BWV 601 - The level of exuberance rises considerably in this transparent and uplifting music which is one of my favorite pieces from the set. Vitality is very important. Saorgin has much more of it than Jacob who's legato is too smooth. Preston is slower than Saorgin or Jacob; it's a lovely and relaxing interpretation that ultimately takes 2nd place to Saorgin's vital reading. Although Rogg is as slow as Preston, he doesn't sound it at all because of greater bounce to the rhythm - a highly vital reading at Saorgin's level. Zerer is a little stern, and it cuts out much of the
sensation of exuberance.

BWV 602 - Another swirling piece similar to BWV 600 except that it has much greater drive. Zerer is superb; the swirling is deep and thorough, and the drive coulnd't be stronger without being overbearing. He's very muscular. Rogg is so different; he's much more optimistic, benign, and slower. But his drive is still very strong and the rhythm a foot-tapper. Preston's flow doesn't have close to the foundation that Rogg or Zerer have and the drive is reduced; rather disappointing. Saorgin's fine reading could be more animated. Jacob takes the majestic approach and it works beautifully; his is the best performance of the five.

The next ten chorale arrangements are for Christmas:

BWV 603 - As usual, Rogg is more optimistic than Zerer and less driven; both are fine readings. Jacob and Preston surpass both of them with excellent levels of optimism *and* drive. Saorgin is the fastest with a relatively dark reading which might be a little contrary to the text involving the 'manger' episode.

BWV 604 - Bach's chorale melody, derived from a Gregorian source, is quite comforting, noble, and lovely. Rogg is very slow paced and devotional; his rhythmic energy is low. This is the first time where I feel that Rogg makes the wrong interpretive decisions. Switch to Preston's quicker reading, and the effect is an irresistably energetic flow and a beautiful performance. Saorgin and Jacob convey more vitality than Rogg, although not at Preston's high level. Zerer could be more poetic and less stern.

BWV 605 - "This day, it is so full of joy." Zerer manages to keep the joy to a minimum; that's a danger he tends to face with his muscular and stern approach. Jacob and Rogg convey fine levels of joy and sunshine. Preston rises to the occasion with a very alert and optimistic reading; it's easily the best of the five versions, being the only one which really emphasizes happiness with some exuberance. Saorgin is exuberant also, but the optimism can't match Preston.

BWV 606 - The Lord is coming down from the heavens, and a great performance will convey that image. Zerer loses his even flow at times; it's sounds a little unmusical. The other four versions are excellent with Rogg providing a tenderness which is alluring.

BWV 607 - The angels are now coming down in rapid fashion with music having an all-encompassing swirl and up-down motion. Zerer doesn't seem to be putting much of himself into the performance; all expression is just sideways. Saorgin is rather dark in nature, a problem which inflicts him from time to time. The remaining three performances hit the spot quite well, although none is superb.

BWV 608 - This piece continues the swirling from BWV 607 with great joy. Jacob uses a slowish tempo without any reduction in happiness; his pacing is delicious as is the entire performance. Jacob gives this work more substance than the other versions. Saorgin is even slower than Jacob; the reading is very serene and enjoyable. Rogg's performance is soft-spoken but with subtle joy. Preston is much quicker with a vivacious rhythm, and Zerer finally allows himself to possess some tenderness with a high level of optimism. Overall, I'll take Jacob for BWV 608.

BWV 609 - A strong tribute to the Lord for creating the union of Christians. This is majestic music with a 'hard as rock' and driving underpinning by the quavers from the pedal. Preston is on the quick and light side; it's a nice reading, but ultimately not sufficiently muscular. Zerer provides the muscle but with a rather stodgy rhythm. Jacob and Rogg are certainly majestic enough, although they round off the contours. Saorgin's performance has the best of everything: sharp, bold, hard, driving, majestic, poetic, and rhythmically energetic.

BWV 610 - Saorgin, although wonderful in BWV 609, is off the mark in BWV 610. This is very dense four-voice music which still has to convey Jesus as one's 'true' pleasure. Out of the density, Saorgin creates a glum picture as if having Jesus as one's is certainly a 'downer'. This melancholy and dark nature of Saorgin's strikes down the heavy performance. Although Wolfgang Zerer has the same tempo as Saorgin, he sounds quicker because he's less heavy. Zerer also is expressive with the music's yearning element; Saorgin is too immersed in mud to convey it. Rogg quickens the pace, but his reading is still too dark.

Preston's reading had me thinking of the 'Largo' tempo indicated for the hymn. Preston blows that out of the water with a much faster tempo; he's also stern as hell. What was he thinking? This is uncharacteristic of Preston. Jacob is slow but with some life.

BWV 611 - As with the previous piece, this one is for meditation. Still, the text is not a gloomy one but based on faith. Jacob is quite slow and there is some gloom in the interpretation as well as optimism. Preston again has a very heavy and stern hand; he starts out as if all hell is breaking loose. But later on, the poetry of the music shines through, and his rays of light are illuminating. Preston makes this majestic music, and the score easily adapts - a great performance. Zerer is much quicker than Jacob or Preston; he is strong and little severe. Basically, I think his quick pace doesn't give him the luxury of churning up a lot of majesty. However, I'll take Zerer over the gloomy Jacob. The same applies to the quick Rogg version which does have a less severe nature than Zerer.

Saorgin begins with an eerie hysteria; his majesty is never in doubt. This is a version standing tall with the Preston. They have all the majesty and nobility and get big points for such transcendent readings for one my favorite short Bach organ pieces.

BWV 612 - Saorgin gives my favored reading with strength and boldness; his rhythm is irresistable, and the poetry is in full supply. Rogg is just a little less compelling. Jacob and particularly Zerer glide on the surface of the music; Preston is just too light for my tastes.

Christmas Update: Just getting ahead on the year's festivities. Lionel Rogg was significantly ahead of the other versions, but the chorale arrangements for Christmas were not his most shining moments. Also, Simon Preston and Rene Saorgin performed excellently in the Christmas pieces. Those Chrsitmas Pieces were murder for Zerer. The severity of his approach to Bach definitely went against the grain for these ten arrangements. Jacob just moves along with a combination of great and less than sterling readings.

So, it's Rogg at the front by a small margin over Preston and Saorgin. Rogg's advantage is that he has no major drawbacks which keep coming regularly. His rhythmic energy is second to none, and the balance between weight and lift is superb. Preston tends to a light nature with plenty of kick, although he can at times be as heavy as any other artist. Saorgin's only problem is some tendency toward dark readings.Zerer needs to show a healthier balance between his own stern nature and Bach's optimism. Some of his readings are flat-out on the wrong emotional target, but he can accumulate some lift by cutting down on the negative thoughts.

Part II will get us into the New Year and beyond. It's great to start the holidays so soon! Please pass the cranberry sauce.


Part 2

Donald Satz
wrote (October 10, 2001):
The next three chorale arrangements are for the New Year:

BWV 613 - Saorgin must think that the New Year has much danger lurking around the corner; his reading is strong, stern, and I love it. Preston is subdued and light with less vibrancy than Saorgin; this isn't Preston at his best. BWV 613 would have played right into the strengths of Zerer, but he downplays the power in the music. However, unlike Preston, Zerer does create a little sinister activity. Jacob and Rogg are fairly similar to Zerer. Saorgin is my 'main man' for this music.

BWV 614 - This arrangement conveys dark and heavy emotional themes. I feel that Rogg and Saorgin overdo the heavy component with overbearing atmospheres that dampen emotional breadth. Zerer's reading, although not lacking for darkness, is more transparent than Rogg or Saorgin; that's all to the good. Preston also possesses fine transparency and conveys greater poignancy than Zerer. Jacob's interpretation is superb. The slowest of the five, his transparency is excellent and his themes well nuanced. At a very slow tempo, Jacob savors the dark life and invests it with nobility
and tenderness.

BWV 615 - Joy filled and patriotic, this is one of Bach's most majestic organ pieces. The blending of a four-note motif with constant swirling of notes and chords creates a surge of adrenalin in this listener; I almost feel like saluting.

Zerer, Preston, and Saorgin need more optimism; they're too dark for this music, and the swirling properties are not sufficiently pronounced. Both Jacob and Rogg are infused with joy and give outstanding accounts which make the piece a great listening experience.

The following two arrangements are for Epiphany:

BWV 616 - Jacob is the opposite of joyful; he's ponderous and flat. Saorgin, Preston, and Rogg are just as slow as Jacob but provide attractive rhythms and lift to the music that makes their performances seem much quicker and more vibrant. Zerer is about twice as fast as the others and totally forgettable; it sounds like a run-through of little involvement no more vibrant than Jacob's performance.

BWV 617 - These are anxious times with restless runs from the tenor voice and fluctuating quavers from the bass; however, there is still an optimistic element in the music. Except for Jacob, each performance extends to well over 2 minutes; Jacob is at about 1 1/2 minutes with a reading I find to be quite routine and without sufficient foundation. Zerer is an improvement, but he again downplays the positive emotional
features. Preston, Rogg, and Saorgin excellently convey the anxious and optimistic elements; Rogg and Saorgin are particularly adept at detailing the runs from the tenor voice.

The next seven arrangements are intended for the Passion:

BWV 618 - This is a great canon having sighing motifs and subtle but intense sadness and hope from the tenor voice. Jacob goes from too fast in BWV 617 to a very slow and ponderous BWV 618; it simply lacks any vitality. Zerer is just as slow paced as Jacob but has a tenor voice to die for; it's so vibrant and well projected. Zerer finally captures the tenderness and incipient joy in Bach's music; he also delivers a fine level of majesty. Rogg also is majestic and much faster than Zerer with a vibrancy that can't be beat; both are superb performances. Saorgin and Preston are in the middle of the small pack.

BWV 619 - Descending scales and ceremony play a large role. Zerer, who must be on a hot streak, delivers much majesty and optimism. Jacob, although no slower than Zerer, is so smooth and flat that he sounds to be taking forever to finish the piece. Saorgin, who has an occasional penchant to darken Bach's music excessively, does so with BWV 619; he's very slow and melancholy. The same applies to Preston's ponderous reading. Rogg brightens up the proceedings some and also provides some ceremony, but he's way below Zerer's level. This is Zerer's piece all the way.

Update on Wolfgang Zerer: He's starting to loosen his austere shackles and get more into Bach's uplifting emotions. When he succeeds, Zerer is as good as any other artist in these pieces. Although Zerer has made up substantial ground, he's still at the bottom. I'm sort of rooting for Zerer, because I feel he has a great deal of potential. But, when he's off-base, I won't hesitate to point it out.

BWV 620 - Well, it didn't take long to have to point out a Zerer problem. It's the usual one of excessive austerity and insufficient lyricism. Switch to Jacob and there's a consistent hint of hope. Preston and Rogg are darker than Jacob, but they are not austere; they are commanding. Saorgin disappoints with austerity that even overshadows that of Zerer.

BWV 621 - The text concerns Christ's last seven words on the cross. It should go without saying that much emotion would be involved, but Preston and his quick tempo just glide on the music'surface. Jacob is a little care-free and Rogg not very expressive. Zerer is excellent with a very sad and lovely interpretation. The version that I favor and also best represents Christ's last words comes from Saorgin. His performance has the most weight but also the most vibrancy and a pleading tone to the melody.

BWV 622 - Possessing one of Bach's most beautiful melodies, the embellished upper voice supported by swaying and tender middle voices and a strong foundation is a wonderful creation. Wolfgang Zerer's slow reading of ceremony and hope also has a mesmorizing foundation. At the bottom, Preston is again quick and surface bound, engaging in short note values which detract from the music's depth.

BWV 623 - A short and celebratory piece with only Zerer not fully satisfying; low on majesty and high on joviality, he doesn't give sufficient weight to the music. Saorgin is the most ceremonial, Preston is the most vibrant, and Rogg and Jacob provide tender and uplifting readings.

BWV 624 - Simon Preston is the slow-poke here with a reading over two minutes; since it's not majestic nor vital, I'll pass. Saorgin is only about 20 seconds faster, but he invests the music with urgency and vitality in an excellent reading. Rogg trims another ten seconds of the total time with a very alert and bouncy performance. Zerer and Jacob cruise along for just over a minute. Outside of being speedy and severe, Zerer offers little and joins Preston as a 'pass' version; Jacob is just speedy and innocuous.

Now we have six arrangements for Easter. Uplifting qualities are prevalent here due to Christ's acscension:

BWV 625 - Zerer and Jacob continue with a quick speed and are joined by Preston; Rogg and Saorgin maintain their slow regimen. The music is dominated by a descending step-by-step motif which also rises up; the struggle between light and dark is upon us. Preston is very strong and certainly captures the struggle and the music's beauty in a severe way. Zerer can sniff out 'severity' with the best of them; his reading is similar to Preston's. Jacob largely removes the severity and is quite optimistic. Each of these three quick performances is highly rewarding.

It's back to the relatively dark and severe approach with Saorgin. His much slower tempo doesn't impact me one way or the other. I was hoping that perhaps Rogg would lift the work through greater majesty, poetry, detail, or something else that's special. Rogg answers the call beautifully as he invests the music with a 'reaching out' quality that's very effective and helped by a little lighter texture than those severe versions. Rogg's the one who best depicts the ascension element; actually, he's the only one of the five to depict it at all.

BWV 626 - This majestic piece has plenty of severity to offer which is mixed with some magnetic rays of light. Rogg delivers everything I could want from the music, a reading of great stature and strength. In comparison, Saorgin and Preston are low on majesty and spirit; their quick tempo likely doesn't help matters. Listening to Jacobs, I wouldn't have any idea that there's important events going on; he takes all the bite out of the music. Zerer could have been colossal in this work, but he goes too fast and with little angst. Lionel Rogg has no competitors in this group.

BWV 627 - This arrangement has three sections with separate but related motifs. The first section has a syncopated rhythm, the second is flowing and legato, and the third section is highly ceremonial and swaying. Saorgin isn't significantly faster than the other versions, but he gives that impression; the third section sounds particularly rushed and a little raucous. The other four performances are excellent with Rogg having the edge for his majestic third section; again, he stretches the music upward.

BWV 628 - This piece has me thinking of Christ swirling upward toward heaven. Preston is so fast and lacking grace that the picture of Christ's ascension is not a pretty one. This time it's Saorgin, not Rogg, who best conveys the 'reaching out' element of the music.

BWV 629 - Majestic and uplifiting music that still possesses plenty of bite. Saorgin is wonderful; his phrasing is sharp and loses none of the music's poetry. Speaking of poetry, Preston conveys little of it in a severe reading which would do Zerer proud. As it happens, Zerer keeps the severity to a minimum with a very effective performance which I find a little too smooth. Rogg is also low on angularity. I wouldn't expect much angularity or bite from Jacob and he gives little in BWV 629.

BWV 630 - A highly legato reading of a spiritually uplifting nature is just the ticket for this work. Werner Jacob takes to the music with a strong addiction; his degree of power is perfect and the swirling sensation is exceptional. The theme of the text is the triumph of Christ, and Jacob is right on target. Rogg is not on target as his phrasing becomes monotonous; I feel no triumph from this reading. Preston, Saorgin, and Zerer are excellent but can't reach the spirit conveyed by Jacob.

Update: Not a great deal has changed from Part 1. Rogg continues to maintain supremacy as he displays no flaws which are habitual. With a body of 45 pieces of music, the infrequent problems win the day. Of course, Rogg is not just about a lack of negatives. His rhythmic vitality and way with Bach's swirling music is infectious.

Preston has lost much ground. He has been displaying a penchant for severity and heavy textures which are not strong areas for him. Saorgin is faring very well; outside of some tendencies for excessive darkness and the occasional raucous approach, he's been as good as Rogg. Jacob, although he was superb in BWV 630, tends to deliver insufficient bite which gets old over time. Zerer's regimen of severity fades now and then, but he just can't leave it alone. I tend to favor relatively strong and severe Bach on organ, and I'm having some trouble with Wolfgang Zerer. So, I have to assume that most folks would not take well to his interpretations.


Part 3

Donald Satz
wrote (October 24, 2001):
There is only one chorale for Pentecost:

BWV 631 - This bubbly and rhytmically alert piece is the model for the Leipzig Chorale BWV 667. The quavers from the pedal on unaccented beats give the music a wonderful contrast to the bounce of the upper voices.

Zerer isn't very concerned about the bouncing aspects of the music; his slow reading keys on power. Personally, I find it too thick in texture. Preston is light with great spring and optimism. Although heavier than Preston, Saorgin is not in Zerer's thick category; the result is a reading of stature and magnificence. Jacob is equally fine with quick and exhilarating reading similar to Preston's. Rogg's is the slowest performance but has abundant stature and is quite uplifting. Overall, only Zerer misses the mark; there's neither adequate bounce nor optimism.

BWV 632 & 633/634 are 'Service' pieces. BWV 632 is smoothly flowing music with much imitation in the soprano and bass; its mood is deeply felt joy and satisfaction. Rogg is wonderful; his flow makes the music a gorgeous creation of strong spirituality. Preston is on the quick side with some loss of depth of emotion; also, his flow has none of the mesmorizing qualities of Rogg's. Jacob is also quick, but he provides more weight and a smoother flow than Preston. Zerer's reading never gets off the ground; it has a precious quality and Zerer has little ability to deal with a trait that miles away from his strengths. Saorgin's performance is quite nice with a fine flow. This is Rogg's music thoroughly.

BWV 633/634 - BWV 634 is the original, although I can tell little difference between them. This chorale is one of the most loved and recorded of the pieces comprising the Orgelbuchlein. To say it's gorgeous music would be an injustice, but none of the five versions is among my favorites. Rogg and Zerer don't come nearly close enough to the music's core; they seem to just go through the motions. Saorgin and the very slow Preston are at a higher level; Jacob reaches excellence. However, the work can pierce the heart and even Jacob doesn't do that.

The next four arrangements are of catechism hymns:

BWV 635 - Befitting a text concerning the ten commandments, the lower voices beat the commandments into the listener. The music has at least a fair degree of severity, but Preston is entirely benign. Zerer invests the piece with strong bite, and he's a winner when it comes to severity. The only problem is that Zerer is not highly musical. That's a problem easily solved by Jacob, Rogg, and Saorgin who retain sufficient severity and also give the music a supreme majesty.

BWV 636 - An adoration to God, the music has a 'reach out and touch someone' quality. Rogg is on the slow side and uses a thick legato which I don't appreciate; it sounds cloying and undignified. Preston and Saorgin are way too oppressive and no better than Rogg; both seem to want to 'reach out and club someone'. Jacob has a lighter touch which is preferable; still, his level of smoothness is a little syrupy. Zerer hits the spot with some angularity and life. Unlike his uusual regimen, here he keeps
the severity to a minumum.

BWV 637 - Not an upbeat piece, the text concerns Adam's fall, Eve's duplicity, and the serpent's triumph. Bach is likely highly symbolic with the falling sevenths from the pedal representing Adam's fall and the circulating middle voices being the serpent. Bach has Adam going down continuously - not the best that humans have to offer.

There's a major difference between Zerer and Rogg. Zerer, although severe, is rather subdued while Rogg treats the event in the Garden Of Eden with a strength that would carry well in Madison Square Garden in New York City - the main event. Jacobs is quick with sufficient bite. Preston is on the thick side, but the music well accomodates his heavy texture. The four versions are effective. I prefer Saorgin who possesses plenty of strength with better detail of the individual lines and some interesting and bouyant registrations.

BWV 638 - Salvation is upon us, and victory is at hand. Bach's music is strong, confident, and brash as the pedal's bass exuberantly moves forward. I love Zerer's performance; it's the epitome of vitality, angularity, and high self-esteem. Also he highlights the tug and pull rhythm of the piece. With Zerer, there's no doubt that salvation is 'now'. Jacob provides a high degree of joy, but his typical legato makes his performance less effective and more benign than Zerer's. Saorgin is even more benign than Jacob; not possessing Jacob's joyful nature, the smooth performance doesn't exhibit much emotion. Rogg is on the slow side and not very animated. Preston finally wakes up on the right side of the bed; he's quite angular and displays the same *tug and pull* rhythm provided by Zerer.

Now come four chorales dedicated to 'Faith in God':

BWV 639 - A reverential prayer to God, Saorgin gets bogged down in a heavy dose of gloom and doom. By having a more vibrant chorale melody line, Rogg keeps one's interest alive. Jacob adds another 30 seconds to the 2 1/2 minute performances of Saorgin and Rogg; I'm afraid that this very slow tempo makes the reading sedentary. Preston takes the opposite tempo approach and is too quick and superficial; it doesn't sound like any prayer I've ever heard.

That brings me to Zerer who is making some fine upward strides as we get closer to the conclusion of the set. This time, he easily surpasses his four competitors and everyone else with a perfectly paced and highly expressive reading which is reaching out for God's guidance and love.

BWV 640 - Much more active and fast than the previous chorale, BWV 640 does retain the reaching out characteristics of BWV 639. Surprisingly, Zerer eschews all sharpness, sounding a little like Jacob usually does. However, the 'reaching out' aspect is strong. Speaking of Jacob, he's actually more angular in this piece than Zerer athough no more effective. Rogg applies a staccato approach which works decently; it does have a slightly frivolous effect. Preston essentially uses the same tempo here as he does in BWV 639; the result is no contrast at all. Saorgin is even slower than Preston. Overall, there is no gold in these hills.

BWV 641 - The circulating and embellished soprano voice carries this gorgeous and heart-felt music. Saorgin is suffciently slow at about 2 minutes; Jacob extends the music almost another minute in a reading that hardly moves. Preston is on the quick side but completely reverential; it's a fine performance with abundant depth. Rogg is equally excellent with a strongly projected soprano voice. Zerer, although faster than Jacob, seems to plod his way through the piece as his embellished soprano voice is too recessed; I'd say that his balances are out of sync.

BWV 642 - Dealing with the satisfaction of leaving all power to God, the music is strenuous, energetic, and very optimistic. That's the case unless you're listening to the slowish Lionel Rogg who supplies low energy and optimism in a heavily legato haze. Although Jacob is as slow as Rogg, he's much more optimistic and reaching for something better. Zerer is certainly energetic and bouncy but misses some of the music's poetry; he's more strenuous than optimistic. Preston has the energy, bounce, and optimism in his hands. The version I favor comes from Saorgin who has bounce and energy at high levels; what puts him over the top is that his reading is the most muscular I know without any loss of lyricism.

The last two chorales deal with death and eternity:

BWV 643 - "All people must die" is the theme of the text to this chorale arrangement. However, it isn't a gloomy statement of resignation but a milestone on the way to eternity. One of the phrases in the text mentions the "great splendour offered to the pious". Splendour is the last thing one would think of when listening to Preston's slow and gloomy performance. Jacob is as slow as Preston but carries great optimsim. Rogg, Zerer, and Saorgin are exceptional. Both Rogg and Zerer make the most of the constant sharps in the middle voices, and Saorgin takes the majestic approach I love
so much.

BWV 644 - Bach's Orgelbuchlein concludes with discreet but optimistic and driving piece whose text is about the transitory nature of life. In the order of things, Zerer is the preferred version; his is the only one which has great drive and the added advantage of some strong angularity. At the other end, Saorgin goes back to his dark approach and delivers a totally 'downer' ending to the set.

Summary: None of the sets is unworthy of your consideration. I find Lionel Rogg the best of the five. First, he diplays no flaws which keep coming back with regularity. Generally, his rhythmic flow is exceptional, and he has no problems delving into the core of the chorales.

Second on the list is Rene Saorgin. Many of his performances are superior and often involve the heroic approach I always fall for. What keeps him back from Rogg's level is a tendency for dark readings which sometimes do not mesh well with Bach's music.

Third is Wolfgang Zerer who rose significantly with the latter chorales. When the man is 'on', he is magnificent. However, his shortcoming is a penchant for severe readings which can miss the thrust of the music.

Simon Preston and Werner Jacob hold up the rear. Preston does have a particular style in the beginning chorales: light and vibrant. But he's not content to stay there as he goes on a merry-go-round of different approaches which often are unmusical and/or wrong-headed. Jacob maintains the same style throughout the set: smooth readings which either hit the spot with majesty or die on the vine with lack of vitality.

The way I look at it, I can't have the best of every chorale without keeping these five versions and a few others as well. For those who only desire a very limited number of versions, Rogg and Saorgin are the best bets. Listeners who like 'smoothness' more than I do will likely have greater appreciation for the Jacob set. If angularity and severity is the prevailing disposition, grab Zerer immediately. Preston is more for those who don't really have a center of gravity, or perhaps for individuals of a highly eclectic bent.


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

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Last update: ýMay 5, 2003 ý19:32:03