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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Bach Project, Volume 1

  • Toccata, Adagio and Fugue, in C Major, BWV 564
  • An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653
  • Trio Sonata #1 in E Flat Minor, BWV 525
  • Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543
  • Partite Diverse Sopra Il Corale Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu Gütig, BWV 768
  • Passacaglia in C Minor, BWV 582
Todd Fickley, organ
MSR Classics MS1561 75:10
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Todd Fickley is active in his hometown of Washington, D.C. as an organist, conductor and speaker, but has also made concert tours of the US, Europe and Israel. This is volume 1 of his ambitious undertaking for the MSR label, The Bach Project, which will include all of J.S. Bach's organ music. But before I get into aspects of the performances here, let me mention a detail that might well be of primary interest to many organ aficionados regarding this recording: the organ used is the four-manual Sint-Michaëlskerk Schnitger organ (1721) in Zwolle, Netherlands. Well actually, there's a little more to this: that is the organ used alright, but via the computer program Hauptwerk, which allows for a variety of pre-recorded historic or high quality organs to be used in performance or recording. The sound of the various organs is said to be very accurate: according to Fickley's album notes, "every sound is the unaltered sound of the actual instrument." The process of recording the organ is very precise and painstaking, as Fickley details in the notes.

Not being an expert on the sound of the Sint-Michaëlskerk Schnitger organ or on historic organs in general, I can't vouch for any claims regarding the accuracy of reproducing their sound, but I will say the organ's sonic properties on this recording are very attractive and natural in tone. In fact, when I first began listening to the CD I hadn't yet read the album notes and believed that I was listening to the Sint-Michaëlskerk Schnitger organ as recorded by conventional means, and I utterly loved its sound! Initially, it was the thing I most liked about the recording.

Purists might well scoff at this type of recording, but one must remember that any recording of a Beethoven symphony or Prokofiev ballet is ultimately an osmotic product, a reproduction. Only a live performance is the real thing. True, this recording is twice removed from "the real thing", but I'm quite comfortable in the knowledge that the sound of this organ is as excellent as I've ever encountered on a recording (or in live performance) and in no way sounds simulated or artificial. In fact, because of today's advanced recording techniques, one can safely assert that the organ on this CD sounds significantly better than most, maybe all stereo-era recordings of the organs used by E. Power Biggs. By the way, there was no post-performance processing made by Fickley, though the Haupwerk program offers such an option. Now, on to that other tiny issue here – the performances!

Fickley plays the music in a fairly straightforward fashion, which is an asset in Bach keyboard interpretation. That said, he's not rigid or robotic in his approach, as he allows a measure of flexibility in his phrasing and tempos in the flow of the music. More importantly, he deftly captures the essential character of the contrapuntal Bach, the profound Bach and the religious Bach. His playing is precise and accurate and he always makes you forget that technique is even an issue in these challenging works. The opening Toccata, Adagio and Fugue (BWV 564) is very impressively played: the start-and-stop manner of the music at the outset in the Toccata is crisply played by Fickley and the latter half is delivered in a lively tempo and with a gloriously stately character. The Adagio is appropriately somber but never drags, and the Fugue's plentiful and busy contrapuntal elements are well delineated and vividly brought to life in this delightfully joyous account.

The brief and relatively light An Wasserflüssen Babylon (BWV 653) is nicely phrased and serves almost as an interlude to the lengthier Trio Sonata #1, in E Flat Minor (BWV 525). Fickley delivers an excellent account, with the finale sounding especially impressive. His performance of the Prelude and Fugue, in A minor (BWV 543) is right on target too. The ensuing Partite Diverse Sopra Il Corale Sei Gegrüsset, Jesu Gütig, (BWV 768) is one of the more exotic Bach pieces, at least in certain passages (Bach wrote it over a period of many years, which might account for its ranging character and sense of exoticism) and in Fickley's hands the theme and eleven variations are very colorfully and imaginatively rendered. For comparison I listened to Lionel Rogg's performance of this piece from his complete set on Harmonia Mundi, and good as Rogg is, his performance sounds a little less engaging and his organ, the Silbermann at Arlesheim, had a less pleasing sound, though that might have been the result of overly close miking. Fickley points up the sense of struggle in the closing piece, Passacaglia in C Minor (BWV 582), and he wisely highlights the emerging sunlight as he builds subtly toward the triumphant if slightly ambivalent ending.

There is much competition in this repertory of course, but this first issue bodes well from an artistic standpoint: at its completion this project by Todd Fickley might well end up as one of the more impressive Bach organ cycles. By the way, Fickley has announced that he intends to perform each volume in this series on a different Hauptwerk-based organ but, having been won over by the sound of this excellent Schnitger organ, I rather wish he'd stick to this one – its sound is simply superb. But then, maybe he'll find another organ just as beautiful sounding. At any rate, this is a most desirable CD for Bach keyboard enthusiasts. Highly recommended!

Copyright © 2015, Robert Cummings

Trumpet