Lancashire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
5:41 AM 16th January 2022

Classical Music: B-A-C-H Anatomy Of A Motif

B-A-C-H Anatomy of a Motif
5 Stars

JS Bach Contrapunctus XIV à 4 (unfinished Fugue) from Die Kunst der Fugue BWV 1080; Ricercar à 6 in C minor from the First Part ‘Regis Iussu Cantio Et Reliqua Canonica Arte Resoluta’ of Musikalisches Opfer BWV 1079; Mendelssohn Sonata on the Chorale ‘O Haupt voll Blut and Wunden’ in D minor; Schumann Sechs Fugen über den Namen ‘BACH’ Op 60; Brahms Fugue WoO8; Liszt Präludium and Fuge über den Namen BACH S 260; Reger Fantasie und Fugue über BACH Op46; Karg-Elert Passacaglia and Fugue on BACH Op 150

Simon Johnson plays the organ of St Paul’s Cathedral
Chandos CHSA 5285(2)
Release date: 28th January 2022

What an ingenious idea for a programme of organ music. This 2CD set presents the listener with over two hours of some of the finest musical gems in the organ repertoire all based on the four note motif B-A-C-H.

Not only that, Simon Johnson, who was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral from 2008 until September last year, when he moved to Westminster Cathedral, knows how to get the best out of this mighty instrument. He writes that the evolution of the organ at St Paul’s Cathedral is chameleon-like, well suited to German romantic music.

Interestingly, Johnson does not overuse the famous reeds conscious that if he does, the acoustic of this fine Wren building will compromise the musical detail. And it is this attention to detail that gives this recording an edge, it certainly does not detract; if anything, it enhances the listening experience as we get to hear more of the wonderful sounds.

So, what is the BACH motif? David Gammie writing the superb commentary accompanying this disc, reminds us that in the early days of musical notation B was the first note to require an accidental, to distinguish the ‘round’ or ‘soft’ b (flat) from the ‘square’ or 'hard' b (natural). In Germany (though not Britain or southern Europe) this led to the two notes’ acquiring different names hence the square b natural became 'h'. The name ‘Bach’ therefore forms an elegant phrase of two pairs of falling semitones.

Simon Johnson’s inspiring playing is first-rate. The crescendos and diminuendos are thrilling, and he manages to get individual stops to speak without overdoing it.

I always enjoy the Schumann six fugues and Gammie writes they were conceived as a set of contrasted character pieces, together the six movements for a kind of fugal symphony. Johnson captures the spirit well and use wonderful sounds as in No 5.

For many, the Liszt needs no introduction and Johnson gives a refreshing performance skilfully manoeuvring himself across the different manuals to construct a symphony of sound.

When Johnson needs to use the reeds, he does so to significant effect and when they need to be soloed out they permeate without diminishing the sound.

Chandos’ sound engineers have done a superb job in recording the grand organ in this expansive building.

The Mendelssohn Sonata is from a manuscript fragment of an improvisation realised in 2007 – 08 by Rudolf Lutz the Swiss organist and is in three movements. It takes the chorale variations of Mendelssohn’s Sixth Organ Sonata as an approximate model. Johnson is able to illustrate the luminosity of the score before ending, as does Sonata 6, serenely.

There are so many highlights on these discs. Take Reger’s Fantasie, from the opening the King of Instruments speaks with a lovely full organ sound and within a minute Johnson manages to bring the registration down before continuing with further delicate sounds pinpointing the detail in the score, which eventually rises with the BACH motif coming through on full organ with plenty of reeds, as in the Fugue, with the pedal notes adding to the intensity.

Johnson had for a long time wanted to learn the music of Reger and Karg-Elert, but the pressures of full-time employment prevented him doing so. However, Covid-19 gave him a lot of unexpected practice the result gave Johnson time to get round the fistful of notes required and then work on registrations leading to a commanding performance. The different movements of the Karg-Elert demonstrate the versatility of both instrument in the choice of stops and player as an artist that knows how to take his colours and mix and blend them to perfection without diluting anything.

As an organist, I have been to many organ recitals and, over the years, heard many of these pieces included separately in a programme but hearing them all on one disc makes for a thrilling two hours of organ music. Every permutation of stops has been used to profound effect to create a noteworthy disc.