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Recording an attractive, complete Pachelbel cycle is no easy task – there is fabulously crafted music to be sure, but also plentiful ‘Gebrauchsmusik’; the listener is obliged to sit through many Magnificat fugues. CPO, however, have gone about the task in an inspired manner. Dividing the music between four organists avoids the sense of ‘note-microwaving’ which some- times occurs when a single player records the complete œuvre of a prolific composer (especially when the lesser fare is unlikely to feature much on his or her concert programmes).

The quality of the playing here never dips below the excellent; these are players whose stylistic awareness is beyond reproach and whose ability to present sometimes idiosyncratic historic organs at their best is unquestionable. american James David Christie plays with a palpable sense of monumentality which only occasionally threatens to become leaden. Christian Schmitt’s playing is more mercurial, often using registrations focused on smaller combinations (sometimes based on 4fts). The playing of Stuttgart professor Jürgen Essl perhaps has the most presence, aided by a profound understanding of the relationship between his variety of touch and projection of musical figures. his performances of the variation sets from the Hexachordum Apollinis in particular radiate a remarkable sense of empathy – some of the most enjoyable music-making on these CDs. The most austere playing comes from Michael Belotti, whose more straightforward approach nevertheless suits some of the more contrapuntally strict chorale settings on his disc (Wenn mein Stündlein, for example) in combination with the meantone tuning of the organ.

I have to confess to feeling slightly ashamed to have been aware of just one of the featured instruments, the famous Sieber organ in the Michaelerkirche in Vienna. I hope I am not alone in realising how much of our knowledge of surviving 17th- and 18th-century instruments in the German-speaking world is biased towards the north. The organs here are all outstanding, but that in Suhl (Thuringia) – on which James David Christie performs – is especially intriguing. its builder, Eilert Köhler, came from the north but his 1738 organ (ii/39) is clearly a Thuringian creation with many 8ft stops and dark, tierce-laden choruses. The case is fascinating – southern high baroque, certainly, but with a trompe l’œil sense of vertical perspective in the central pipe fields and pedal towers which at least suggest some northern reminiscence. Christian Schmitt plays the two organs of the Klosterkirche in rheinau (Switzerland). The larger organ was built in 1715 by Johann Christoph Leu. its variety of flutes in the warm acoustics, including a 1fton each of its three manuals, is especially well exploited by Schmitt. The smaller organ, originally built by Johann Christopher albrecht and enlarged by Johann Conrad Speissegger in 1746, is a single-manual instrument which initially served this large abbey alone; its plenum is vigorous indeed.

Jürgen Essl’s CDs are recorded on the aforementioned Sieber organ in Vienna and the fascinating Jacob Hör organ in Wolfegg (southern germany). Hör, in fact, was operating in Josef Gabler’s area, but his organs are far less ‘pretty’ and more rugged with brilliant choruses, a large variety of 8ft colour on the hauptwerk especially and very few reeds ( just a single Vox humana on the third manual and a noble pedal Trombone). The most exciting ‘discovery’ is the Joseph Bossard organ (1721) in the Monastery Church in St Urban (Switzerland) – a meantone instrument with no fewer than 40 stops, almost half of which are on the hauptwerk. With short octaves and a short compass pedal, this is an organ that seems to inhabit an earlier soundworld.

There is no doubt that, while listening to large chunks of Pachelbel in one sitting is a tough ask, this is an essential reference piece bringing together first-rate players and wonderful, mostly little-known historic organs. The recordings are all excellent and the booklet is extensive and informative including, for example, every registration used in the near six hours of music.

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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