Melba Recordings

"... a label of fragrant distinction"

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J.S. Bach

27/07/2020
MusicWeb International (UK)
Dominy Clements

Printed in lettering that will have you seeking out your reading glasses, this release comes with a nice glossy booklet with extensive notes in English and German by organist John O’Donnell and an introduction with information about the 1980 instrument by Jürgen Ahrend recorded here, the full specification of which is included in the booklet. This is “the only large organ in Australia designed and voiced completely according to classical principles.” With no added bells, swells and whistles the sound and disposition is in line with the Arp Schnitger organs admired by Bach, and very fine it sounds indeed. The recording communicates excellent bass sonorities, and to go along with the nicely rounded sound of the mid and upper registers there is a clarity here which is key to the enjoyment of these well-filled discs. Those of us more used to more resonant church acoustics might need to take a moment or two to become acclimatised to the drier Blackwood Concert Hall environment, but this space is by no means dry as dust. The recording feels fairly close to the instrument, but by no means uncomfortably so.

The dynamic range to be expected is fully explored in the opening Toccata, Adagio & Fugue in C major, which establishes John O’Donnell as a virtuoso performer whose decades of experience performing Bach internationally ensures we are in safe hands, and feet. This programme is of course largely taken up with ‘The Leipzig Chorales’, which were initially composed in his early career but were something to which Bach returned in his final years, making revisions that have been the subject of much scholarly debate. O’Donnell’s playing is sensitive to Bach’s treatment of the vocal lines, with plenty of nicely lyrical shaping and an avoidance of too much flashy ornamentation. Rhythmic security is coupled with what could be argued is a certain rigidity when it comes to expression. Actual rubato is undesirable in Bach, but if you prefer a bit of inner flexibility in your chorales then this is a recording that delivers everything about as straight as can be imagined without sounding unmusically mechanical.

Such interpretative values are a question of taste. I can very much appreciate the qualities in each individual performance, but after a while found my mind becoming a bit distracted. The music is fine indeed, but emotional involvement is not this recording’s strongest aspect. This may also be a side-effect of placing numerous chorales together, something I encountered in Kåre Nordstoga’s recording on Lawo Classics (review). The rich church acoustic in this case adds atmosphere and more distance from the mechanics of the instrument, not that this is an issue with the Ahrend organ. Peter Kofler’s more recent recording on Farao Classics (review) spreads everything around, and again is heard in a sumptuous church acoustic. I have to admit a preference for this kind of sound, but for the more analytical listener John O’Donnell may well be a more suitable choice.

Searching this site for cross-references, I was reminded that I had previously encountered John O’Donnell on the Ahrend organ in a programme of music by Handel (review). The academic flavour I sensed in that case is an aspect of this Bach recording that has to be taken into consideration, but there are many captivating things to be heard here as well. The dancing notes of Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her are delightful for instance, and the impressive closing Passacaglia & Fugue in C minor, BWV582 is uplifting and wants to be played at a loud volume. As with the Handel disc, this is a set best dipped into rather than played at one sitting, and you will most likely find yourself sitting up straight rather than lounging in a hot tub of beautiful Bach - something of which the composer might well have approved.