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James Johnstone (Organ)

Bach Organ Works from James Johnstone


Bach Organ Works

Prelude & Fugue in G major, BWV 541
Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 548
Chorales BWV 639, 656, 686, and 687
Trio Sonata in C major, BWV 529
Pastorella, BWV 590

James Johnstone (organ)

ASV Quicksilva


CD / TT: 72:20

Donald Satz wrote (May 27, 2001):
Quite often, recordings make the world seem a little smaller. A few days ago I was listening to a Sony/Seon 2-disc set of Bach organ works performed by Gustav Leonhardt. Yesterday, I acquired an ASV Quicksilva new release of Bach on organ performed by James Johnstone. As it happens, Johnstone uses the Muller Organ of the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam which is the same organ Leonhardt uses on the Sony set. Further, this organ was restored in the 1960's with Leonhardt acting in the role of advisor to the restoration. For better or worse, the two recordings only share one work in common, and I'll make comparisions as the review progresses.

James Johnstone has performed with most of the London-based period instrument groups including the Academy of Ancient Music, the English Concert, and the Gabrieli Consort Players. Johnstone also leads Ciaccona, a period instrument chamber ensemble. He has studied under Ton Koopman and Kenneth Gilbert and is now professor of harpsichord and organ at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. I studied clarinet under a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and trust that Johnstone benefited more than I from the lessons.

For those not aware, ASV Quicksilva is a mid-price label under the ASV umbrella dedicated to offering new recordings performed by artists hopefully on their way up the ladder of recognition. I think this is an excellent strategy which the major companies would be wise to uniformly adopt. The catalog number of the new Johnstone disc is QS 6250, and total time is a generous 72:20.

The contents of the recording are:

Prelude & Fugue in G major, BWV 541.
Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 548.
Chorales BWV 639, 656, 686, and 687.
Trio Sonata in C major, BWV 529.
Pastorella, BWV 590.

The Prelude & Fugue in G major has Italian Concerto elements and is quite youthful and exuberant. It is likely that Bach initially composed this work in the 1720's, but recent thinking is that he revised it around 1733 for an audition by one of his sons. For comparison purposes, I'm using the Christopher Herrick version on Hyperion and the Lionel Rogg performance on Harmonia Mundi.

The G major Prelude is wonderfully effervescent music with great drive. Both Rogg and Herrick are in the three minute range. Rogg's is a superb performance with strong details, a sense of youthful energy, and a high degree of stature. Herrick is less detailed with quite a rich sound which some might consider to approximate sonic sludge; however, there is no doubting that Herrick is on the right path with a lovely reading having less drive and lift than Rogg's. Johnstone's reading does not compare. First, he's off to the races at well under 3 minutes. Speed is the primary goal and all else matters little including poetry and continuity. The phrasing often sounds awkward, and I frankly would have no idea of the high quality of the music if I only had Johnstone's performance to go by. This is one of the least musical readings I've heard in recent years.

The G major Fugue has a rock-solid subject with countersubject weaving its way through the musical fabric; the coda has some sensational stretti which cap off a powerful yet highly lyrical fugue. At the moment, I'm starting to feel that I bought a 'lemon'. With Herrick and particularly Rogg, the piece has a strong foundation, irresistable drive and stretti, and is very musical and poetic. I don't feel a strong foundation from Johnstone, his drive is erratic, and the stretti have little impact. As in the Prelude, Johnstone seems to drain the music of some of its lyricism. BWV 541 is not well served by Mr. Johnstone.

Trio Sonata In C major, BWV 529 - Thinking that the Prelude & Fugue works might not play into Johnstone's strengths, I decided to try out his Trio Sonata in C major. The first movement Allegro is joyous and uplifting music which could well represent a majestic tribute to a deity or hero. Johnstone does much better here. The eccentricities of his Prelude & Fugue in G major are now gone; the reading is one of majesty with a delectable urgency about it which is quite exciting. One of my favorite performances comes from Ton Koopman on Archiv. Although Johnstone does not provide as much detail as Koopman, his reading is equally enjoyable.

Johnstone is also very rewarding in the second and third movements. In the second movement Largo his uplifting second theme is inspiring although Koopman's second movement has better pacing. The third movement Allegro finds Johnstone in an appropriately happy mood, but his performance does not have the lift of Lionel Rogg's.

Overall, Johnstone's Trio Sonata in C major is a fine accomplishment. I don't consider the reading an exceptional one; the Largo could have benefited from greater momentum, and the third movement ideally needs more bounce. However, that's being rather picky. The main consideration is that Johnstone is like a different artist in the Trio Sonata than in the Prelude & Fugue in G major.

Pastorella BWV 590 - This work comes in four movements which Bach might well have not intended to be joined together; what they do have in common is the droning effect. The first movement, in F major, is uplifting and could well represent the glorious dawning of a new day. A quick and light version like Simon Preston's on DG is quite rewarding as is the much slower paced and serious Richter on Teldec. Any good performance must have the uplifting element, and Johnstone's is rich in it. The droning is also outstanding - a very impressive performance.

The second movement is in C major. Richter maintains a more serious demeaner than Preston whose rhythmic vitality is outstanding. Harald Vogel's performance for DHM also is rhythmically alert as well as having a delicate nature. Johnstone is exceptional in this movement. He conveys the vitality of the best versions while also providing some of the weight of the Richter performance. The listener gets the best of both worlds.

The third movement, in C minor, is very melancholy; I prefer performances which have some bounce and rhythmic vitality to provide contrast. Simon Preston and particularly Richter do not provide that contrast and their versions have a heavy weight. Harald Vogel displays a great feel for the long line and his touch is lighter than Preston's or Richter's; his is one of my favorite performances. Johnstone sounds very similar to Richter - slow and heavy. It's a worthy performance but one I can live without.

I wouldn't want to be without Johnstone's F major fourth movement. It is the only movement in the Pastorella of great joy and exuberance, and Johnstone has all of that and a very exciting performance as well with his perpetual motion delivery. Simon Preston's fourth movement is fast and exciting, but it can't approach Johnstone's propulsive interpretation.

Overall, Johnstone's Pastorella is an excellent one. Its only aspect which keeps it from being outstanding is a heavy third movement.

Chorale "O Lamm Gottes Unschuldig", BWV 656 - This is one of the eighteen Leipzig Chorales and absolutely lovely music which can sound great at almost ten minutes in length from Ton Koopman on Teldec or under six minutes from Peter Hurford on Decca. Koopman is meditative while Hurford is exciting. In between, there are great alternatives such as Lionel Rogg with a rhythmic pulse I find irresistable. Which avenue does Johnstone take? He's with Koopman and just as rewarding; the reading is as uplifting as any I know.

Chorale "Ich Ruf Zu Dir, Herr Jesu Christ", BWV 639 - This is one of the better known chorales from the Orgelbuchlein. It is unusual for the volume in that it's in F minor and the only trio. The music reflects a prayer to God and is reverential and also uplifting in a subtle fashion.Preston represents the quick and superficial performance. Wolfgang Zerer on Hanssler is entirely different with a very slow reading of great reverence and hope. Johnstone is even slower than Zerer, drags some in comparison, and does not convey as much feeling as Zerer. It's a fine version but not outstanding.

Chorales "Aus Tiefer Not Schrei Ich Zu Dir, BWV 686 & 687 - Both Chorales from the German Mass contain gorgeous music, and the majesty and depth of BWV 686 are transcendent. Another essential ingredient is the uplifting nature of each Chorale. That's an ingredient that's largely missing in Johnstone's performances. They are slow and heavy. Switch to Lionel Rogg and listen to readings that are permeated with hope.

Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 548 - I held reviewing this till last, because I had a suspicion that Johnstone might not perform this work any better than he did BWV 541 - he doesn't. As with BWV 541, Johnstone is quite fast and finds the lyricism/beauty of the music only sporadically. Every other version I listened to, including the Leonhardt on Sony, provides more enjoyment. For a version that's the opposite of Johnstone's, just move over to the Herrick on Hyperion; Herrick delivers all the poetry of the work while sacrificing none of its tension and contrast.

Don's Conclusions: Johnstone's disc is very much a 'hit or miss' proposition. His Trio Sonata and Pastorella are excellent. However, the chorales from the German Mass are slow and ponderous, and the two Preludes & Fugues are too fast and unmusical. Overall, I find Johnstone's style to be inconsistent. There are so many consistently fine Bach organ recital discs on the market that I can not recommend Johnstone's erratic performances. However, after using Lionel Rogg's set on Harmonia Mundi for many of the comparisions, I am very impressed with Mr. Rogg. His 12-CD set costs well under $10 per disc, and the performances are uniformly excellent. With a bevy of complete sets of the organ works and dozens of single discs available which are superior to the Johnstone performances, it's best to look elsewhere to satisfy your Bach organ desires.

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