This latest offering from Fugue State Films is quite simply a thing of wonder, a thing of great beauty. Visually, aurally, educationally, emotionally… it ticks all the right boxes. For the beginner, the keen amateur, and the experienced professional organist alike Bach’s Orgelbüchlein (‘Little Organ Book’) has long been a foundation stone for the development of sound playing and compositional technique. For the listener the collection is a veritable treasure chest of exquisite and affecting gems.
The pages of the autograph manuscript really are quite small, just 20 centimetres or so in width and about 17 high, each one being neatly ruled in ink with six staves. As most of you will know Bach wrote down the titles of 164 chorales through the book allowing one page per title, a few chorales being allocated two. The chorales follow the church year from Advent through to Pentecost/Whitsuntide and thence to different aspects of the catechism and the Christian life. Bach only completed 46 of the intended chorales including, curiously, two almost identical versions of ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’. Some of the chorales necessitated the addition of an extra stave or two crammed or glued to the bottom of the relevant page, some even being completed in the old style tablature notation to help squeeze everything in. The greater number of the completed chorales are to be found in the first half of the book, the others dispersed seemingly at random through the remainder. No-one can say for certain what prompted Bach to initiate the project or why he abandoned it. Even the title page with its pedagogical declaration is a later addition, almost as if Bach had begun to harbour notions of possible publication. It’s thought that most of the chorales were composed in Weimar between 1708 and 1717, though some may be re-workings of even earlier compositions. At least four, including the unfinished ‘O Traurigeit’ date from Bach’s time in Leipzig. Those frustratingly empty manuscript pages have long taunted musicians. Just what gems might Bach have filled them with if time, opportunity, and inclination had allowed? We’ll never know, of course. But this present production seeks to give a flavour of 15 what might have been. As well as giving superb performances of each of the written chorales the Dutch organist, Sietze de Vries has selected 45 of the remaining titles and improvised his own take on the chorale melody but emulating Bach’s compositional style in so far as that is humanly possible. As Sietze says of the composer’s genius, “Bach is like a dot on the horizon.” You can try and reach his level but you’ll never get there! That said, there are many instances where it is difficult to tell whether you’re listening to Bach or de Vries. Yes, his improvisations really are that good! To be honest I think they’re all nothing short of incredible! The DVD comprises 223 minutes of footage divided into seven easily digestible parts. I’ve watched each part many times over now and have yet to tire of them. Interspersed between the performances are short intervals featuring Sietze seated at the console talking about the Orgelbüchlein, analysing Bach’s compositional devices and demonstrating how he has been able to incorporate them and more into his own improvisations. He has pertinent things to say about the art of improvisation itself and how, in our score-focussed age, it has become something regarded as ’special’ rather than the norm -in marked contrast, of course, to the situation in Bach’s own time. Two organs are used in this production; the utterly stunning instrument to be found in Groningen’s Martinikerk, and the 1733 Hinsz organ in the village church at Leens a few miles north west of Groningen. Village church it may be but the organ is as fully resourced as any by Arp Schnitger (in whose tradition it closely follows). It also happens to look truly spectacular! Sietze gives comprehensive demonstrations of the colours available on each instrument and how they blend together to provide combinations of quite astonishing beauty. This is the first production in which the director, Will Fraser has been able to make use of drone footage, both inside and outside the churches. What could have become something of a fetish has been employed with discretion and to great effect. For example, I love the contrast between the views of the metropolis of Groningen seen from high above the Martinikerk’s soaring west tower with those of the wide, flat landscapes spreading towards the coast beyond the steeple at Leens. As well as the DVD this set also contains two CDs featuring all 91 chorales. The recordings are exemplary, as is the inclusion in the accompanying booklet of every single registration employed. This production comes hot on the heels of the completion of William Whitehead’s long running endeavour to fill all of Bach’s ‘missing pages’. His ‘Orgelbüchlein Project’ is comprised not of improvisations but 118 newly commissioned pieces in a wide range 16 of styles, some quite historic in feel, many uncompromisingly ‘contemporary’. The first performance of the completed project was given by four different organists in 2019 in Amsterdam. One of those organists was Tom Bell who gives a revealing insight in the June 2023 edition of ‘Organists’ Review’ into just how much work was involved in his preparing 41 of the chorales (some by Bach, the others newly composed) for performance. Bell’s experience reveals just how monumental the task must have been for Sietze de Vries to prepare all 46 Bach pieces for performance and another 45 in a Bach style. It really is a quite extraordinary achievement! If ever there was a DVD/CD production no organist, beginner or veteran professional alike, should be without this is surely it. I have found it to be deeply affecting at almost every turn. Copies can be ordered direct for £38.50 from the Fugue State Films website via this link: https://fuguestatefilms.co.uk/product/b ach-missing-pages-buy-dvd/ The icing on the cake for NOA members is, of course, the opportunity to meet and hear Sietze and to play both the featured organs at the Martinikerk and Leens on our October tour to Groningen and Ostfriesland. Sign up now!
Martin J. Cottam