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Michael Murray (Organ)

Michael Murray's "Bach at Zwolle"

1

Solo Works for Organ

1. Prelude & Fugue in D major BWV 532
2. Prelude & Fugue in F major BWV 540
3. Prelude & Fugue in E minor BWV 548
4. Prelude & Fugue in F minor BWV 534
5. Valet will ich dir geben BWV 735
6. Herzlich tut, mich verlangen BWV 727
7. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland BWV 659
8. Vor deinen Thron tret' ich hiermit BWV 668

Michael Murray (Organ) [Schnitger Organ at St. Michael's, Zwolle (Tracks 1-5), Organ at St. Nicholas's, Kampen(Tracks 6-8)]

Telarc

April 1995

TT 72:51

Donald Satz wrote (August 29, 2001):
Don's Conclusion: There are greener pastures elsewhere

This is the first time that I have dipped into the Murray/Bach series from Telarc. Given the number of Bach recordings Murray has made for a relatively well-known label, I tend to be surprised at how infrequently Murray's name is raised when Bach organists are being discussed. So, it was inevitable that I'd try him out and add my opinion to the mix.

Prelude & Fugue in D major, BWV 532 - Since this is my absolute first exposure to Murray, I went through my Bach collection and came up with ten versions for comparison: Jacob, Rogg, Weinberger, Herrick, Bowyer, Newman, Walcha, Johannsen, Vernet, and Preston. As it happens, Murray's version is the slowest of this group, almost twelve minutes in length compared to the next slowest at about eleven minutes.

Vernet on Ligia gives a great performance, particularly of the Prelude which is richly woven by Vernet and also has an unusually bouncy pulse which keeps my head going from side-to-side; just wind me up and watch me go. Vernet's Fugue is good, although the playfulness is downplayed. That French organ of his is something else; its richness oozes into my internal system; also, I had no trouble diving in the details of the music.

If the French organ isn't to your liking in Bach, check out the Lionel Rogg issue. Although his Prelude is close to Vernet's level, it's the Fugue where he really shines; abundant in detail, this is a very playful and joyful reading bound to raise the spirits.

Among the other versions, Preston can be too fast for his own good, Herrick's Prelude begins with him operating in a pile of sludge, Jacob needs more animation in the Fugue, Johannsen is perpetually heavy, Walcha's Fugue is a little on the mature side, Bowyer's Prelude is too fast for the rhythm to take hold, Newman's organ has the sound of a 'grinder' in the Prelude's first section, and Weinberger is a good choice.

Does Murray match up well with Rogg or Vernet? Is he in the middle of pack? Is there a good reason why his name is known by many but mentioned by few? The answer is - middle of the pack. The opening section of the Prelude is a little thick and not well detailed; the second section could use more rhythmic vitality but I'm quibbling since it's a very attractive reading with a compelling pace. Murray's Fugue is as fine as most versions, but it would also benefit from greater vitality and bounce.

Toccata & Fugue in F major, BWV 540 - For comparison purposes, Weinberger/Newman/Johannsen/Vernet are replaced by John Butt, Walter Kraft, and Wolfgang Rübsam.

The Toccata relies greatly on canonic imitation; if any Bach music can make listeners feel that they're streaking through the sky, this toccata is the one. Eventually, the Toccata turns triumphant and urgent. This is a power-packed trip. Bach slows down in the double fugue where each subject is fully developed before joining forces in the concluding section. The Fugue begins in a menacing/macabre fashion with the hint of heroism always hanging in the air; this hint flowers majestically in the final section.

Lionel Rogg is really zipping through space in the Toccata; it's a thrilling listening experience with a great blend of power and speed. His Fugue delivers a strong heroism from the start which is totally spell-binding. If an extra-strong fugue is your ticket, look no further than Walcha and Preston who pound their way into the psyche.

John Butt, like Rogg, employs a fast tempo in the Toccata, but his flow is a little too choppy to fully capture the flying sensation. Simon Preston is another 'high flyer' in the Toccata but doesn't provide the weight than Rogg presents; he is Rogg's equal in the Fugue as I indicated above. The other alternative versions do quite well - not a loser in the batch.

Murray has one of the slower performances on record. It pays no dividends in the Toccata as he is slightly earth-bound. In the Fugue, Murray is too solemn. Overall, his slower speed is quite detrimental to the performance of BWV 540 as his lack of vitality and exuberance is accentuated.

Prelude & Fugue in E minor ("The Wedge"), BWV 548 - I feel I'm getting a good picture of Murray's approach to Bach so I cut down some on the alternative listening experiences. The ones used are Herrick, Weinberger, Fernando Germani on Testament, Martin Lucker on Hänssler, and Dietrich Wagler on Motette. Herrick is my favorite with his majestic and thoroughly poetic account. Lucker is quite slow and strong; unfortunately, he's also rather heavy. The music has an abundance of weight without needing to add more. Weinberger could have located much more poetry than he does in the Prelude; his Fugue is better. Germani's Prelude is like a big 'thud' with insufficient life and lift; surprisingly, he wakes up in the Fugue and the results are favorable. Wagler is lively throughout, but the poetry is slightly lacking.

Murray lacks energy in the E minor with another slow tempo performance. His Prelude is no better than Germani's, and his Fugue is no better than his Prelude. The result is that the circle of boredom is complete – not acceptable. This music has great strength and energy which Murray plays as if he's on the death bed fading into oblivion. Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but it's hard to fathom how Murray could be satisfied with his efforts.

Prelude & Fugue in F minor, BWV 534 - I must admit I was not looking forward to another Prelude & Fugue from Murray. He's reminding me very much of Kay Johannsen who can give heavy and rather uninteresting readings of Bach works requiring great energy. Along with Johannsen for comparison, I used Rogg and Hans Otto on Berlin Classics. I very much like the Otto performance on the Silbermann Organ of the Village Church of Fraureuth; his registrations in the work are light in texture and the performance highly detailed and a joy to discover. Rogg's version is fine, and Johannsen is surprising vital. The performance is certainly weighty, but there's real life to it; it conveys majesty and strength.

Murray is much better here than in "The Wedge". His Prelude is confident in its power and nobility, and has an infectious side-ways rhythm from the lower registers. Why did he wait till now to rise up and be heard? – just a rhetorical question. In the Fugue, Murray tends to go half-way back to the relatively sedate manner. Overall, I'll still take Murray's version of BWV 534 over the other three.

That's it for the non-religious items. Murray hasn't built up a good record so far. Excepting for BWV 534, his performances tend to be heavy with insufficient boldness and exuberance. The fact that Murray is uniformly on the slow side is a further disadvantage, given his overall approach. Of course, Bach's chorale settings are very different in conception than his preludes, toccatas, and fugues. I maintain hope that the 'Murray Way' will fully succeed in these four works.

Chorale BWV 727 - I love the Fernando Germani performance on Testament; it's slow, solemn, uplifting, and picks up every nuance and beauty in the work. Although a little quicker than Germani, Murray's interpretation is very similar. The solemnity is perfect, and I'm spiritually lifted.

Chorale BWV 735 - Vernet has a 3 1/2 minute reading which is loaded with momentum and spritual awakening which is just what the text is all about - worthy humans winging their way towards God who has his heart and hands open. Murray's tempo extends the piece to 4 1/2 minutes; he's not winging his way to God, he's tlong and strong steps. At least Murray is alive with the music. Overall, I prefer Vernet who provides all the strength I want with more zest, but Murray is very fine in BWV 735.

Chorales BWV 659 & BWV 668 - These two are from the set of eighteen Leipzig Chorales. The four versions for comparison come from Peter Hurford on Decca, Peter Sykes on Raven, Christina Barcia Banegas on Motette, and Bine Katrine Bryndorf on Hänssler. Why these four? They're just the ones I most want to listen to at this particular moment.

Peter Hurford is a gentle giant in BWV 659 with a great level of poetry and dignity in this serious but life-affirming music. Peter Sykes sounds like he's in some blow-factory with a booming bass; I'll have to deal later with this recording. Bryndorf's performance is definitely in the 'in a trance' category; her bass is perfectly projected and the pacing is irresistable. BWV 659's text involves a new awakening, and Byrndorf best conveys it. Banegas gives a lovingly intimate peformance which is a nice change of pace.

Murray does quite well in BWV 659. Like Hurford, the dignity barometer and degree of poetry are very high. Still, I'd go for Byrndorf, and I'll be reviewing her set of the Leipzig Chorales in the near future.

Chorale BWV 668 - There's some controversy about including this work in the Leipzig series, and I forgot that Bryndorf does not not offer it; I'll just switch to Leonhardt on Sony/Seon.

From what I read, BWV 668 was the last work composed by Bach and on his deathbed. The text reads, "Before thy throne I now appear...", and it certainly appears a most appropriate conclusion to a fantastic musical life. Having set the stage for the music itself, the performance needs to shed itself of any sense of stress or strife. Bach is going out with an attitude steeped in confidence, nobility, subtle yet piercing optimism, and a comforting glow. If you want to know quite a bit about Bach's musical poetry, I think this last work is a good place to investigate.

I'm glad I selected Leonhardt, because his is a role-model performance of BWV 668. He conveys all the emotional themes and does so with a subtlety that I find quite intense; this version stands tall above the other alternatives. That includes Murray whose reading is much softer but no more comforting than Leonhardt's. Murray is taking Bach almost secretly to the 'other side'; Leonhardt uses the front door with appropriate humility.

The disc has ended, and Murray does improve substantially in the chorales. The problem is that most of the music consists of the Preludes and Fugues category. That should be enemy territory for Murray. He's simply not sufficiently vibrant. Those works need a performer who delivers strength and is brimming with the juices of life; Murray is not that performer.

Overall, the recommendation is to look elsewhere for Bach recital discs. Some very fine playing in the chorales can't make up for Murray's problems with the requirements of the first four works. As for me, I doubt I'll be looking soon for further issues of Murray's Bach discs. On the other hand, I am keeping this recording for his Prelude of "The Wedge"; that is an essential performance.

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Last update: ýMay 7, 2003 ý09:18:10