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GRAMOPHONE (04/2021)
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Reviewer: Marc Rochester

For the third volume in his traversal of Bach’s organ works, James Johnstone presents a programme that could be said to represent the zenith of not only Bach’s but the whole North German school’s engagement in the organ chorale. Here we have the 18 ‘Leipzig’ Chorales and the six ‘Schübler’ Chorales, with an extra technical and intellectual pinnacle thrown in for good measure in the guise of the Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’.

Johnstone is well up to all the technical challenges. He has a harpsichordist’s technique, with incisive figurework and razor-sharp articulation, and an organist’s understanding of touch, allowing the chorale lines to sing while underlying textures are clarified by precisely measured attack and release of individual notes. He also has the musical intellect to deal with these often intense preludes, which collectively present, in microcosm, a compendium of Bach’s compositional techniques. If I were obliged to single out just one of these preludes as a classic example of Johnstone’s excellence as both an executant and an interpreter, I would look to the celebratory Komm, Gott, Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist, BWV667, where technical mastery and stylistic integrity combine in a most communicative way to provide an exhilarating performance, although his glittering and sprightly account of Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV645, is an absolute must-hear. Throughout the entire programme, however, we are treated to playing of great authority and assurance.

For many, the big attraction will not be so much the music or the playing but the instrument itself. Built by Christoph Treutmann at around the same time as Bach was composing much of this music, it is a fine survivor of the north German organs of Bach’s day. And although Bach is never known to have played or even heard this instrument in Grauhof, he would certainly have been familiar with the sort of sound it makes. To our ears, the pleno might seem a trifle overbearing (as in a slightly ugly-sounding BWV665) and some of the uneven voicing will be disturbing to some, even if to others it provides real character (as with BWV646), but Johnstone uses the organ to good effect, most notably in the Canonic Variations, and the result is a very fine recording indeed of these often quite challenging pieces.

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