Bach’s Missing Pages: An Expanded Orgelbüchlein

Hot on the heels of the extended, and now completed, Orgelbüchlein Project (which commissioned 118 new pieces to complete the chorales that Bach did not compose), comes this offering from Fugue State Films and Sietze de Vries. Over seven c30′ films (on one DVD) and two related CDs (which contain all the music from the films), Sietze de Vries plays all of the 45 chorales of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. He then plays his own improvised chorale preludes in the style of Bach, using 45 of the 118 chorale melodies that Bach left titles for, but didn’t compose. In the videos, alongside his improvisations, he explores the philosophy of improvisation and shows how to improvise in the style of Bach, using the important historic organs in the Martinikerk, Groningen and the Petruskerk, Leens, both tucked away in the top right-hand corner of The Netherlands.

Of course, neither of the two organs was known to Bach but, as Sietze de Vries explains, Bach was influenced by the sound of the North German organ and appears to have the sound and structure of such organs in mind when composing the Orgelbüchlein. All but three of his preludes were written between 1708 and 1717 while he was at Weimar, so the sound of the North German organs he heard in his youth would still be in his head – these two Dutch organs are fine examples of the type. Helpfully, both organs are at the same pitch (about a semitone higher than A440) and more or less the same Neidhardt temperament.

The organ in the Petruschurch of Leens was built by Albertus Hinsz in 1734. It was only the second large organ that he built, although he had earlier built the Rückpositiv of the Schnitger-organ in the large Martinikerk in Groningen (1730). The Martinikerk organ is one of the finest surviving historic instruments around. With roots, and some pipework, from the 15th century, it reached its pinnacle in the early 18th century through work by Arp Schnitger, his nephew Franz Caspar Schnitger and Hinsz.

With one exception, the chorales are performed in the order of Bach’s manuscript Orgelbüchlein. That was arranged in the order of the church year starting, as was the Lutheran tradition, with Advent. Sietze de Vries’s 45 chorale improvisations are provided when Bach provided a title but didn’t compose a prelude.

Bach completed most of the earlier titles in the little book, so the earlier parts of the films and CDs are mostly of Bach’s music. The one exception to the order comes right at the end of the last film, which otherwise would only have two Bach compositions. Appropriately, Sietze de Vries ends with Bach, his beautifully serene Pentecostal chorale Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier (BWV 633). This five-voice prelude, with the chorale presented as a Canone alla Quinta, would normally be on film 5 but makes a touching prayer-like conclusion to the set of 91 chorale preludes.

Bach’s introduction to the Orgelbüchlein notes that it is intended for “a beginning organist receiving instruction as to performing a chorale in a multitude of ways while achieving mastery in the study of the pedal, since in the chorales contained herein the pedal is treated entirely obbligato“. It is this variety of musical forms that is one of the most interesting aspects of the Orgelbüchlein. And it is this variety and imagination that is showcased in Sietze de Vries’s improvisations, most of which are difficult to tell apart from Bach. He reflects the full range of Bach’s compositional technique as demonstrated in the Orgelbüchlein and plays with an assured confidence that comes from a thorough and intuitive understanding of compositional form and structure.

In these days of easily available scores of music, it is easy to forget that improvisation was at the root of organ performance for most of its long history. Most organ recitals in Bach’s time would have been improvised, and the skills required of organists, as evidenced by records of trials for organist posts, are based on a range of improvisation techniques. Of course, improvising 45 pieces in a specific musical style must have taken a lot of thought and preparation, not least to ensure a range of musical styles within the genre, and to ensure a suitable contrast of registrations. But the resulting pieces sound convincingly fresh and inspired, something that must only come from a thoroughly experienced subconscious mind. Improvising chorale preludes is a mainstream occupation for many organists today, but many that I have heard over the years strike me as rather closer to the style of Bach’s student Krebs, in their pastiche of Bach style. That is emphatically not the case with Sietze de Vries’s improvisation.

As well as admiring his improvisation skills, organists will learn a lot from watching Sietze de Vries play. His technique is a perfect demonstration of the points I made back in the 1990s in my own little book, The Performance of Early Organ Music. Watch his ‘cat’s paw’ hand position, allowing fingers to play with the tips. Those who fret over the choice of organ shoes should note the choice of footwear, which would be ideal for walking the cobbled streets of Groningen. Listen to the ‘slightly detached’ articulation allowing each note to sound cleanly and clearly, aided here by excellent acoustics in both churches.

As ever with Fugue State Films productions, the production quality is outstanding. The accompanying booklet includes a revealing essay from Sietze de Vries on the process of preparing for this project, specifications and photos of the two organs, and a complete list of the registrations used. My only very slight quibble is that the track listing is based on the DVD, with numbers 1-91, so you need to subtract 44 to find the track number of the second CD.

The registrations are well worth studying. Sietze de Vries has a detailed knowledge of both organs and clearly knows how they sound away from the console – which is usually the worst place to listen to an organ. He makes frequent use of coupled manuals, both for pleno pieces and for preludes with a solo where he often couples the accompanying manual to the solo manual. In the Groningen organ, the Hauptwerk can be coupled down to the Ruckpositive, giving a special aural presence to the solo line.

Andrew Benson-Wilson: Early Music Reviews 25-07-2023