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Fanfare Magazine: 38:3 (01-02/2015) 
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Reviewer: Jerry Dubins

Between 1731 and 1741, Bach published under the title Clavier-Übung (Keyboard Exercise) four separate volumes containing what he considered to be the finest and most representative keyboard works he’d composed to date. The third volume (aka “German Organ Mass”) consists of multiple settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria (BWV 669–677), pairs of settings for each of six catechism chorales (BWV 678–689), and four duets (BWV 802–805). Framing all of this is the bifurcated Prelude and Fugue in E♭ Major, nicknamed “St. Anne,” BWV 552, the prelude coming at the beginning of the work and the fugue at the end.

Collectively, Volume III of the Clavier-Übung comprises Bach’s most extensive, complex, and technically demanding single work specifically designated for organ. Only The Art of Fugue would surpass it, if it could be proved beyond doubt that it was conceived for organ as well.

The “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue is so named because the chorale tune on which it’s based, “Was mein Gott will, das g’scheh allzeit” (What my God wants, may it always happen), bears a striking resemblance to the “St Anne” Hymn by William Croft, “O God Our Help in Ages Past.” But that’s the least noteworthy aspect of this truly monumental prelude and fugue.

Bach’s interest in numerology is well documented, but the “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue takes matters beyond harmless hobby to the level of obsession, for this is surely the composer’s most number-centric work, fixed on “3” as a symbol of the Holy Trinity to the point of arithmomania. Both the prelude and the fugue are in E♭ Major, three flats. The prelude appears to be some sort of ternary, almost palindromic, rondo structure—ABACABACA—in nine sections, 3+3+3. The fugue is a triptych of three subjects, their corresponding meters proportionally divided into groupings of threes. Moreover, the three fugues that variously combine to create the tripartite structure contain 36, 45, and 36 bars, respectively, each evenly divisible by 3, and together adding up to 117 bars, which when divided by 3 gives 39, a number whose digits represent the Father (3) and the combined Trinity in one (3 x 3 = 9).

Outside of the Prelude and Fugue, the German Organ Mass contains 21 chorale preludes (3 x 7) and with the four duets and the prelude and fugue each counted as one, the total number of pieces adds up to 27 (3 x 3 x 3). For an in-depth analysis of how all of this relates to the Lutheran Mass service and what it all means, you might want to check out the detailed analysis, complete with diagrams, by Timothy A. Smith at jan.ucc.nau.edu/tas3/ubung.html.

Needless to say, this is purely “paper” music which would have been appreciated by no one other than Bach. Those who may have heard him play his “German Organ Mass” were probably not well versed in the mechanics of musical notation, and they wouldn’t have sat there counting measures. As good Lutherans all, however, they would certainly have recognized the chorale tunes on which Bach exercised his legerdemain.

I see that back in May/June 2010 (issue 33:5) I gave a positive, if not rave, review to Léon Berben’s two-CD Ramée set of Bach organ favorites and seven harpsichord toccatas. Christopher Brodersen, who submitted a second-opinion review one issue later, was decidedly less favorable, taking Berben to task on a number of points. It seems that poor Léon can’t catch a break, for subsequent reviews of his playing, submitted by half-a-dozen different colleagues, have all been critical to a greater or lesser degree.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert when it comes to organs—the technical specification sheets describing ranks, stops, couplers, and plenum registrations are not something I understand all that well—so I can’t really converse intelligently about an instrument’s physical or mechanical properties. All I can speak to is how it sounds, which, in the case of an organ, can have as much to do with the acoustic properties of the church or cathedral in which it’s housed as it does with the pipework and machinery itself.

Also, regular readers know that I’m not of the Lutheran faith, so a good deal of the religious context of Bach’s “German Organ Mass” is apt to be lost on me. Again, as with the sonic characteristics of the organ, I can only respond to this music in the abstract and, having listened closely to these two discs all the way through, and then having resampled several individual tracks, I can tell you that I didn’t much like what I heard. What I wasn’t able to get a good handle on, though, was the extent to which my discontent was in response to the organ itself, to Berben’s playing of it, to the acoustics of the venue, to the recording, or to some combination of all four factors.

The organ is the Christoph Treutmann in Grauhof, Germany. Building began in 1734, when Treutmann was already in his 60s, and construction was completed three years later. With its three manuals, plus pedal, 42 stops, and approximately 2,500 pipes, it was the largest and most elaborate instrument Treutmann had built. But organs tend to be works in progress, often modified and updated over time to accommodate changing musical tastes, and so it was with Treutmann’s organ. Tinkering and tampering continued on it until 1777, well after the builder’s death in 1757. By 1848, almost a century later, one of the features that had been added, a keyboard-operated carillon, was de-installed, being considered no longer in vogue. The instrument was then left unmolested until 1989, when a three-year-long renovation was undertaken in which all of the original parts of the organ still in existence were retained and others were renewed true to the original concept. Special care was taken to restore the original sound pattern. And so, with Léon Berben’s new recording, we come full circle to what the Treutmann organ is presumed to have sounded like in Bach’s day.

Again, let me emphasize that it’s hard to know whether fault lies with the organ, Berben, the venue (the Monastery Church of St. Georg at the Grauhof estate), the recording, or to some combination thereof, but the sound strikes these ears as mush. I don’t know if it’s Berben’s choice of stops, but there’s a running-together of voices and a lack of sharpness in articulation that are deadly in Bach. It’s a big, impressive enough sound, but one that one resembles the character of a circus or ballpark calliope rather than that of the sharply focused, tightly defined organs on which I’m accustomed to hearing Bach’s works for the instrument.

Granted, there aren’t all that many recordings of the complete Clavier-Übung III, probably because performing it in its entirety is a tremendously taxing challenge for the player, but also, I’m guessing, because, apart from the opening and closing “St. Anne” Prelude and Fugue, the chorales, beautiful as they are, require a certain devotional frame of mind on the part of the listener that’s not easy to sustain over the duration.

That said, the only other complete Clavier-Übung III I’m familiar with is the 1970 recording by Helmut Walcha playing the Silberman organ in Strasburg’s Saint-Pierre-le-Jeune Church in his 12-disc Archiv set of Bach’s organ works. The sound of Walcha playing the Strasburg Silberman, compared to the sound of Berben playing the Grauhof Treutmann, is the difference between day and night. Walcha’s organ is bright, responsive, and fast-speaking, delineating the voices with clarity and clean separation. Berben’s organ and/or his manner of playing it correspond in sound to the texture of a marshmallow.

I might also mention that the Treutmann’s vox humana stop, if that’s what it is—a stop on which Berben relies too heavily in the chorales—has the widest, most annoying vibrato I’ve ever heard. If you’ve ever experienced that rapidly oscillating jitter on a defective CD, you’ll have an idea of the effect I’m trying to describe. It made me want to take a hammer to my CD player to get it to stop.

I really wanted to like and recommend this release, but instead, it seems that I’ve joined my colleagues in their generally unenthusiastic response to Léon Berben. I’d steer clear of this one.

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