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Johann Biggers (Organ)

“Bach on the Fritts!”


Organ Works

Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564
Partite diverse sopra, BWV 768
Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543
Prelude & Fugue in A major, BWV 536
Chorale Preludes, BWV 654 & BWV 668a
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582

Jonathan Biggers (Organ)


May 1994

TT: 77:01

The Fritts Organ, Arizona State University

Donald Satz wrote (September 17, 2001):
Calcante is a small company out of Ithica, New York which specializes in organ recordings. Jonathan Biggers is Link Professor of Organ and Artist-in-Residence at Binghamton University in New York. Some of you may be familiar with him through his performances on the NPR program "Pipe-dreams".

I can't report that I find the performances recommendable. Sometimes, as in BWV 564, he displays a fine degree of muscle, but he generally tends to restrain himself. Textures are on the heavy side and the playing is quite smooth. Biggers usually employs faster than average tempos that do not enhance excitement or momentum; his foundations are often soft, and he tends to bend rhythms which results in lost drive.

Here's my notes as I listened to the disc:

Toccata, Adagio, and Fugue in C major, BWV 564 - This work has some great variety in it highlighted by the pranks of the Toccata and sadness of the Adagio with its powerful transition to the Fugue which is majestic almost beyond belief. Although I listened to a few versions, I'll restrict my comments to the Martin Lucker on Hänssler. Lucker, along with Andreas Marcon, is highly muscular, bold, and precise in Bach. Lucker's BWV 564 deals from strength and a little sterness. He's a dangerous prankster in the Toccata, and his Fugue really lifts him beyond all other versions; it's so bold, stark, ordered, and powerful while creating its own sense of beauty.

The reason I dwell on Lucker is that Jonathan Biggers employs a similar style to BWV 564. Biggers is certainly bold at every available moment; that's when he's at his best. It's just that he can't match Lucker, although he's not far behind. I suppose I'm making it sound like Biggers would be a fine stand-in for Lucker. That's on target except for the Biggers transition from Adagio to Fugue. Instead of power and increased 'affekt', we get an organ trying to rise out of tons of heavy oil; it sounds very bad to my ears and is a major blot on an otherwise excellent performance.

Partite diverse sopra, BWV 768 - This is one of four chorale partitas Bach composed. In this case, 'partita' means a basic theme followed by several variations. BWV 768 is Bach's most elaborate and longest chorale partita; it consists of a chorale followed by eleven variations. The first six variations are for the manual with the remaining ones having an obbligato pedal.

The Partite diverse sopra does not offer the sheer power of BWV 564; it's a relatively intimate work although the 3rd, 5th, and last variations are highly assertive. Weinberger's reading on CPO possesses his usual traits: strong, angular, and with a tendency to mistake tenderness for solemnity. Preston has lighter textures than Weinberger and is more animated in most of the variations. His quicker tempos certainly help in presenting a more vibrant account than Weinberger. Excellent rhythmic vitality such as in the magnificent 10th variation makes Preston's a superb BWV 778.

Biggers starts off with a chorale of little weight or beauty. Then his 1st variation has insufficient bounce and a rhythm which decreases the poetry of the piece. The urgency of the 2nd variation is low; Biggers just doesn't dig deeply. His 3rd variation unfolds too quickly, the 4th is low on lyricism, etc. etc. Overall, the Biggers BWV 768 is a jumble of contorted rhythms, fast tempos, and weak foundations enveloped in a superficial glaze. I'm very surprised that the strength that Biggers displays in BWV 564 is abandoned by him in every variation except for the last one; poetry and a fine rhythmic pulse also get discarded. My impression is that Biggers realized that BWV 778 has needs different from BWV 564 but went too far to compensate and lost his direction.

Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543 - A work of vitality and swirling rhythms which excellently suits Lionel Rogg but doesn't sound like it has much affinity with Biggers. He's too fast in the fugue, the strength he possesses in BWV 543 is again at a reduced level, and I feel he makes a mess of the swirling rhythms; he seems to bend them in an unmusical fashion.

Prelude & Fugue in A major, BWV 536 - I love the poetry, strength, and ceremony of this work. Biggers must well identify with it also, because he gives an excellent performance. He eschews his faster than average tempos and is actually in the ballpark with Wolfgang Rubsam and Andrea Marcon. Rubsam is tough, severe, and 'in your face'; this Bach work easily accomodates the approach. Marcon's my favorite for the great detail he provides and his tremendous optimism in the Fugue. Biggers is quite similar to Marcon in the Prelude but doesn't really take an optimistic route for the Fugue. His approach is sultry and a little exotic. Overall, I consider Biggers as fine as the Rubsam issue.

Chorale Preludes BWV 654 & BWV 668a - These are two of the eighteen Leipzig Chorales which are among his best in the genre. My favored BWV 654 comes from Bine Katrine Bryndorf on Hänssler; the spiritual optimism leaps out of the speakers. Biggers perfers a sumptuous approach which is mighty tempting.

In BWV 668a, Biggers goes down the tubes with a performance which is much too solemn; his choice of registrations just adds to the somber mood. Switch to Leonhardt on Teldec and hear a bright and confident interpretation with great lift. Some sources maintain that Bach composed this work while on his deathbed. Bach's send-off composition is ideally served by Leonhardt; Biggers is off-course.

Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 - One of Bach's most popular organ works, the Passacaglia is a power-packed and majestic creation. E. Power Biggs on Sony gives a fantastic performance of strength, inevitability, and poetry. Biggers starts off well, but he doesn't go anywhere as his perforamance becomes increasingly routine and even dull.

Don's Conclusions: The Jonathan Biggers disc is not recommended. Out of seven works, four are basically not competitive with most other alternative versions. Also, at no point is Biggers revelatory or better than the alternatives. Competition is intense, and Biggers is not up to the comparisons. Sound quality is excellent, but that doesn't alter my assessment.

I don't want to give the impression that Calcante recordings should be avoided. For the past few months I've been luxuriating in a wonderful 2-disc set of Scheidemann organ music from this company, and I have ordered more recordings from them. I do suggest that those who buy organ discs check out the Calcante website.

Feedback to the above Review

Jeffrey Hall
wrote (September 17, 2001):
[To Donald Satz] Hey, is Biggers better than Biggs, because his name suggests so? :-)

Donald Satz wrote (September 18, 2001):
[To Jeffrey Hall] I see your point, but keep in mind the names before the last name:

JONATHAN Biggers - POWER Biggs. So, Biggs must be better and just happens to acutally be a great deal better than Biggers.

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