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John Butt (Organ)
Bach Organ Toccatas & Schübler Chorales from John Butt


Bach: Four Toccatas and Fugues; Schübler Chorales

Toccata & Fugue for organ in D minor ("Dorian"), BWV 538 [12:57]
Toccata & Fugue for organ in F major, BWV 540 [13:33]
Toccata, Adagio, & Fugue for organ in C major, BWV 564 [14:04]
Toccata & Fugue for organ in D minor, BWV 565 [8:18]
Six Schübler chorales BWV 645-650 [4:07, 1:53, 3:02, 2:36, 2:50, 3:34]

John Butt (Organ) [Organ of Trinity College, Cambridge]

Harmonia Mundi France

Jan 2000

CD / TT: 67:02

Recorded at the Trinity College, Cambridge, England.
Review: New JSB Organ Recordings
Buy this album at:

Donald Satz wrote (October 31, 2001):
John Butt has been recording on Harmonia Mundi for many years and has a fine reputation. Any reservations expressed about his performances tend to question whether Butt places too much emphasis on architecture at some expense to conveying emotional breadth. Concerning the present Bach recording, I am familiar with three reviews. One on the Classics Today website finds the disc about the best single-disc Bach recital recording on the market. The second, in Fanfare Magazine, raises the common issue of Butt's emphasis on architecture. The third, American Record Guide, is luke-warm; toccatas are preferred to fugues, and the Schübler Chorales are not excellent.

After listening to the disc and many comparison recordings of each work, I'm not convinced that Butt is a master of architectural decision making; in fact, I feel he has a less than advantageous grasp. His performances are beset with a host of problems that crop up regularly: very quick performances which are not exciting, uneven flows and choppiness, shortened/clipped note values, poor balance among voices, and thin textures. Also, Butt is no expert at bringing out the beauty of Bach's music.

The least rewarding parts of the disc are the Toccata sections and the Schübler Chorales; that only leaves the Fugues where Butt is excellent although not as good as the best alternatives. Overall, there's not a work on the disc that would keep me coming back for more.

My journey through the recording follows:

Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 - My standard bearers for this work are the Karl Richter performances on DG and Teldec. The music is massive in that it seems to have infinite weight, and Richter's slow performances are like granite. They also squeeze out every bit of poetry and elgance that the work has to offer; there's great beauty in both the Toccata and the Fugue.

Butt doesn't find much beauty in the Toccata; at a quick tempo, his phrasing does not flow well nor does it sound natural. The Toccata, involving a conversation between two manuals, loses some of its conversational impact in Butt's hands.

The Fugue finds Butt in better form. He uses interesting rhythms which might be a little choppy at times but invest the music with an appealing bounce. Butt is certainly massive in his approach and takes no back seat to Richter in this respect. Overall, Butt's BWV 538 is a good performance let down some by his Prelude; both Richter issues are easy to obtain and represent a significantly more rewarding proposition.

Toccata & Fugue in F major, BWV 540 - Here's another massive work with the Toccata taking us on a streaking trip to other worlds and the Fugue conveying such strength and beauty that it doesn't seem possible that this creation comes from a mortal being. Lionel Rogg's version on Harmonia Mundi is a work of genius, and it times out at exactly the same time as Butt's version - 13:44. Clearly, Butt has no problem at all being massive and all-enveloping. But again, as in his BWV 538, he's a little choppy when compared to Rogg whose 'streaking' element is much stronger. In the Fugue, Butt comes back with a slam-bam reading of great impact which doesn't scrimp on the music's beauty. I still prefer Rogg for this work, but John Butt is not far behind.

Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564 - Butt is very playful and strong in the Toccata; however, his note values sound a little clipped in the second section. In the Adagio, Butt's registrations are not the most pleasing, creating a whine in the upper voice's embellished melody. Matters improve greatly in the Fugue where Butt is fast and sounds like he's having a great time; still, the reading can't compare to Martin Lücker's majestic interpretation on Hanssler. My basic impression of Butt's BWV 564 is that he always provides ample strength but the musical artistry leaves a little to be desired.

Toccata & Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 - Regardless of authorship, I love this work for its power, fury, and macabre atmosphere. Gustav Leonhardt on Sony/Seon is 'hell on wheels' with a sharp and bold account. For those preferring a richer sound, Hannes Kastner on Laserlight is immensely enjoyable. Unfortunately, Butt pretty much 'strikes out' on this one. He has a penchant for shortened note values in the Toccata which diminishes the music's breadth of power; in the Fugue, the 'echo' phrases are too distant - yes, that's correct; echos can be too far away. For me, this greatly dampens the drive of the music.

Schübler Chorales - It's hard to match Lionel Rogg and Helmut Walcha in BWV 645 which is called the 'Wake-Up' Chorale. Butt is imaginative in his use of a trumpet-sounding registration in the first 'sighing' melody; however, it later gets drowned out by the second melody with a resulting failure to achieve balance and the interaction of voices. This work is another non-competitive one on Butt's part.

BWV 646 addresses the plight of the sinner who can be saved by winging his way to God. Butt doesn't exactly wing along; he tends to skip along. I don't have any problem with this technique, but his registrations are too soft of tone. There's nothing memorable here.

In BWV 647, Butt reduces note values and takes a slightly choppy approach; I prefer Christopher Herrick's fuller textures and legato regimen.

Butt finally provides full satisfaction with a legato reading of BWV 648 which is as slow and rewarding as the Jacob performance on EMI. But then Butt falls back into his rather choppy and uneven flows for the last two Schübler Chorales.

Don's Conclusions: Not recommended. I personally feel that Butt's quest to be distinctive has merely resulted in quirky performances. That he does go the extra mile to provide readings not fully in the mainstream is appreciated. You win some, you lose some - Mr. Butt just happens to lose this time around. I do want to emphasize that since Classics Today states that the performances are a "magnificent achievement", there's obviously a segment of Bach enthusiasts which does not share my views.


Feedback to the Review

Jouzas Rimas wrote (October 31, 2001):
Donald Satz wrote:
< I personally feel that Butt's quest to be distinctive has merely resulted in quirky performances. >
This is the sentence I looked for to describe W. Ruebsam's 565 Toccata & Fugue and quite a lot of other performances.

Thomas Boyce wrote (October 31, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Duly noted. Now how do you feel about his Trio Sonatas?

Thierry van Bastelaer wrote (October 31, 2001):
[To Thomas Boyce] Very dry, in more ways than one. Herrick rules in this repertoire.

Donald Satz wrote (November 1, 2001):
[To Thomas Boyce] I have yet to hear Butt's Trio Sonatas. The recording is on my 'to buy' list, but it likely will move down some based on this more recent disc.

Matthew Westphal wrote (November 1, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] I found that recording an absolute delight, for whatever it's worth...

Donald Satz wrote (November 1, 2001):
[To Matthew Westphal] From reading Matthew's review, I can tell he and I have very different preferences. Matthew refers positively to Butt's "light touch" and "impish flair". But I found the light touch way too light and not advantageous for powerful works. I'm also not high on impish and humorous interpretations. That must be why there's no PDQ in my home.

Virginia Knight wrote (November 8, 2001):
Good to hear a bit about what John Butt is up to, anyway. I sang in a choir he conducted in Cambridge in the late 1980's. His sense of humour, as demonstrated in the off-the-cuff remarks he made to the choir, was idiosyncratic and quite filthy once you'd stopped to work out the point of his jokes!

Two friends of mine had all six Schübler chorale preludes played before their wedding. Despite being an organist, the groom forgot that the second is called 'Wo soll ich fliehen hin?'. We had just the third, BWV 647.


Toccatas for Organ: Organ Toccatas - J. Butt [Satz] | Organ Toccatas - J. Butt [McShan] | Organ Toccatas - Marlow

John Butt: Short Biography | Dunedin Consort | Recordings of Vocal Works | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Discussions of Vocal Recordings:
BWV 232 - J. Butt | BWV 244 - J. Butt
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Bach Organ Toccatas & Schubler Chorales from John Butt | New JSB Organ Recordings
Bach Interpretation: Articulation Marks in the Primary Sources of J. S. Bach | The Cambridge Companion to Bach

Instrumental Works: Recordings, Reviews & Discussions - Main Page | Order of Discussion
Recording Reviews of Instrumental Works: Main Page | Organ | Keyboard | Solo Instrumental | Chamber | Orchestral, MO, AOF
Performers of Instrumental Works: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


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