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Nicholas White (Organ)

"The Amsterdam Bach" from Nicholas White


The Amsterdam Bach

Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582
Chorale Preludes, BWV 622 & 659
Schübler Chorales, BWV 645-650
Piece d'Orgue, BWV 572
Prelude & Fugue in B minor, BWV 544
Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543

Nicholas White (Organ) [von Beckerath Organ at St. Michael's Church, New York]

Pro Organo

June 2000

CD / TT 68:33

Donald Satz wrote (October 20, 2001):

Don's Conclusion: What could have been a very good recording is undone by a lack-luster reading of the Schübler Chorales.

Nicholas White is the organist and choirmaster at St. Michael's Church in New York City. Born in London, White received his Bachelor's and Master's in music from Clare College in Cambridge in the late 1980's. The von Beckerath Organ was completed in 1967 and is certainly a lovely sounding instrument.

White's Bach recording exhibits many of the aspects of recent Bach organ recordings on a modern organ. The performances of the two chorales, BWV 622 & 659, are exceptional for their beauty. The more powerful Bach works such as the Preludes & Fugues are not as rewarding; the organ sound is rich and phrasing is rounded off by White with a resulting loss in the music's bite. These strong works tend to lose some of their vitality when the 'edge' is minimal.

So prior to listening to the Schübler Chorales, I was prepared to give a qualified recommendation. But White's Schübler Chorale peformances are the weakest on his disc. He uses less than advantageous tempos, is too light at times, and tends to glide on the surface. Ultimately, two great peformances, some rewarding ones, and non-competitive Schübler readings add up to a thumbs-down conclusion.

My comments on each performance are as follows:

I decided to start off with the two chorale preludes. BWV 622 is a meditation blending sadness with hope; the upper voice has the embellished melody, the middle voices are serene and sometimes swaying, and the bass line creates a strong foundation. My favorite version is from Wolfgang Zerer on Hanssler; his slow paced and highly ceremonial reading fully captures the music's beauty and has a strong and mesmorizing bass line. Nicholas White provides a great performance; his tempo is well within the usual boundaries, the embellished melody is stunningly beautiful and
graceful, the bass line is strong and full, and the level of hope is very high. Overall, White's is the most vibrant interpretation I know.

BWV 659 is similar to BWV 622 concerning the embellished melody from the upper voice and a strong underpinning from the bass line; however, BWV 659 is the more assertive and determined composition leading to a sense of inevitability. Vibrancy is again strong in White's embellished melody, and the determination and inevitability are also at high levels. His reading is equal to superb alternatives including Bryndorf on Hanssler and Hurford on Decca.

Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 - If you go for Variations, this Bach work should win your heart. With more than 20 variations over a repeating bass line, the Passacaglia is a majestic and uplifting creation. E. Power Biggs on Sony gives a tremendous performance of strength and emotional depth. White performs as well as most, but he doesn't come close to the power or poignancy of Biggs; White also does not differentiate the variations as markedly as Biggs. Further, White's more legato reading tends to lead to reduced interest.

Piece d'Orgue, BWV 572 - Known more commonly as the Fantasia in G major, this piece is the only Bach organ work with a French title and French headings. Having three sections, the work leads from the style of a Fantasia with arpeggios to a five-part Allabreve and then back to arpeggios of a much bolder nature than in the first section. Andrea Marcon on Hanssler delivers a tremendously muscular Allabreve which is unfortunately a little overbearing with reduced poetry. Surprisingly, Karl Richter on Teldec doesn't handle the first section's arpeggios very well; the notes are not well-defined at all. Richter's Allabreve is quite strong and significantly more poetic than what we get from Marcon - it's a stunning and exceptional interpretation. With the third section, Richter's poorly defined arpeggios return. Leonhardt on Sony/Seon provides the best aspects of the Marcon and Richter performances. He's as strong as Marcon but easily more lyrical; his arpeggios are as crisp as Marcon's and make Richter's sound so meager.

The three above alternative versions have one common feature; they are slow and approach or exceed ten minutes. Aside from Nicholas White's reading, Harald Vogel's is the quickest one I know. Vogel is as good as Leonhardt, just faster.

Well, I've used up a lot of words and haven't yet said anything about White's performance other than it is a quick one. All is not well for White in the first and third sections; he's too smooth and rich. This music needs some bite. The Allabreve is very powerful like Marcon's, and it has significantly more poetry to it. However, the arpeggio problems hold White back from occupying the exalted postions of Vogel and Leonhardt.

Update: What I'm most noticing so far is that White seems to be more effective in the chorales where his smooth playing pays some dividends. In the other works, he tends to use too much legato for my tastes, and the soundstage's richness definitely exacerbates the effect. Other than that, White is excellent. His strength is admirable, Bach's poetry and depth hold no problem, and the sound quality is sumptuous.

Prelude & Fugue in B minor, BWV 544 - White's performance is a quick one like Rogg's, but White is less exhilarating for two reasons: Rogg provides more detail and plays a Silbermann organ. White's organ is a lovely sounding instrument, but it hasn't the distinctiveness of the Silbermann.

Prelude & Fugue in A minor, BWV 543 - Lionel Rogg is also exceptional in BWV 543. He's a master of Bach's swirling rhythms, and this work greatly benefits from Rogg's approach which also involves great detail. White's Prelude is fantastic; he delivers great bursts of energy throughout the piece. However, his Fugue doesn't flow as well as Rogg's, and much of the detail is rounded off by White.

For the Schübler Chorales, I can't think of a better set of performances than the one offered by Helmut Walcha on Deutsche Grammophon. It would be quite a tribute if White's readings compare well to Walcha's.

BWV 645, referred to as the "wake-up" chorale, presents the awakening of all that is virtuous. Pure joy permeates Walcha's quick performance; its uplighting nature is inspiring, and Walcha provides excpetional detailing of voices. Nicholas White isn't close to Walcha's level. Even faster than Walcha, White sounds a little frivolous and surface-bound. Also, his detailing of voices is much less pronounced than with Walcha.

BWV 646 concerns the plight of the sinner. What flight path will the sinner take? The path to God, of course. Bach's music excellently conveys this flight, and Walcha is an exceptional messenger. Although on the slow side at over two minutes, it's so easy to visualize the sinner moving upward to redemption. For a very quick version, Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus is great; his sinner is winging his way to God at at an urgent clip. White's reading is in Bowyer's category but with a lighter texture; also, Bowyer uses very interesting registrations that White does not employ. Overall, White's performance is fine but nothing distinctive.

Most recorded performances of BWV 647 are slow at four minutes and quite reverential. I prefer three minute readings which enhance the vitality and optimism of the music. It's perfectly viable since the text states that those who have faith in God know "the right season for joy". Walcha takes the quicker and more energetic approach but he's no match for Christopher Herrick's equally fast performance. Herrick is much more vital than Walcha; he's more vital than any other artist on record. Nicholas White offers a slow and reverential reading very similar to most. There's nothinwrong with it, but the performance does not stand out in any respect.

In BWV 648, White gives a fine reading on the quick side. Although I do prefer the slower performance of Werner Jacob which provides greater reverence, White surpasses Walcha's equally quick reading; White offers a greater degree of gravity.

White falls back down in his BWV 649. Based on the text, the music needs to blend comfort and joy with some tension and weight. Walcha does this perfectly in his slow peformance. White provides one of the fastest versions on record and misses the emotional breadth of Bach's creation.

The last Schübler Chorale, BWV 650, is pure joy and vitality. The text constitutes a prayer for Jesus to return to earth. With Walcha's reading, the listener can create the image of Jesus' return; his vitality, poetry, and projection are superb. White's tempo is in Walcha's range, but his reading has less weight and sounds a little weak.

The Schübler Chorales are not kind to Mr. White. Many alternative versions of each of these six chorales are better propositions than what White delivers. Overall, he's a mix of too slow, too fast, too superficial, and too light. His registrations are entirely ordinary, and the peformances don't have much to offer.

I end up quite disappointed with White's disc. It's not unusual in a mixed Bach organ program for the performer to excel in the chorales but not in the more powerful works such as the Preludes & Fugues. White can't even get to this point due to the lack of distinction in his Schübler Chorales.

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