J.S. Bach Organ Sonatas

Gavin Dixon
MusicWeb International (UK)

Organists are more in the habit of practising the Bach Organ Sonatas than actually performing or recording them, and they have a reputation for sounding much easier to play than they actually are. This new recording by the Australian organist Christopher Wrench makes a strong case for the music to be enjoyed rather than merely admired, and his solutions to the various interpretive problems they pose add up to interpretations that are both convincing and compelling.  

The works are also known as Bach’s ‘Trio Sonatas’, a reference to their structure and Italian stylings, both inspired by the (instrumental) trio sonatas of Corelli. Johann Sebastian apparently compiled these works around the start of the 1730s as exercises-cum-recital repertoire for his eldest son Wilhelm Friedman, who was soon to take up his first appointment as organist at the Sophienkirche in Dresden. It is a testament to Bach’s genius that the pieces function equally well as concert works as technical studies, the three-part counterpoint is strictly adhered to, but musicality is always the first concern. The challenge for the performer is to highlight the independence of the three lines while simultaneously ensuring the balance between them.
The choice of the Garnisons Kirche organ in Copenhagen is sensible from this point of view. Its range of stops offers just the varied yet restricted palette that the presentation of the three part textures require. And Wrench emphasises continuity of tone in his choices and changes of registration. His forays into the more unusual sounds on offer, the tremulant for example in the Adagio of Sonata no. 3, and the ‘Subbas (open) 16’’ in the Vivace of Sonata no.6, are modest enough not to upset the delicate balance of Bach’s counterpoint.
The organ itself was built in 1995 by Carsen Lund, based on a 1724 design by Lambert Daniel Kastens. Its diapason sounds are all on the windy side, and many registers have a pronounced chiff. Discussion of the Bach Organ Sonatas in the early 20th century usually focussed on the question of their intended instrumentation, with claims made both for organ and pedal harpsichord. Performing them on such an airy organ seems polemic in that context, but the distinctive character of the instrument more than justifies the choice. It also helps lay to rest the suspicion that they are mere keyboard exercises, displaying as they do the impressive performance specifications and balance of the instrument. The recording is a hybrid SACD, and while I have not heard the surround sound mix, the super audio stereo gives an elegant and precise aural perspective. There is little in the way of stereo separation, and the reverberation of the church is not prominent, allowing the counterpoint to be defined through the timbres, each of which is served magnificently by the audio.  

As with his astute registration choices, Christopher Wrench has a keyboard technique which is ideal for this music, making it far too easy to forget just how difficult it is to play. His approach to ornaments is satisfyingly indulgent, the lines briefly departing from exact synchronisation for the sake of a brief trill in the upper part, for example, and cadences regularly leant on with unhurried appoggiaturas or mordents. Greater liberties are taken with the slow central movements than the outer fast ones. Rubato is the rule rather than the exception here, the bass lines all the more ponderous and the upper part dialogues all the more lyrical for this shaping. Again, the performance decisions all seem intended to emphasise the musical rather than the didactic value of the sonatas. They are not the most flamboyant organ works in Bach’s output, but this recording demonstrates how the sounds they make, rather than the challenges that they pose, justify their central position in his catalogue.