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The intent behind J.S. Bach’s Mass in B minor has given rise to scholarly debate, with musical posterity and pious devotion being likely motivators. Ten years earlier in 1739, the third of four parts of the Clavier-Übung (‘keyboard practice’) was published and is similarly monumental. The first two volumes concern the harpsichord, the fourth is more commonly known as the ‘Goldberg’ Variations, also for keyboards. But volume three – sometimes called the ‘German Organ Mass’ – was at least an idealised recital programme and, far beyond that, exemplified the styles and idioms of ancient and modern organ composition.

James Johnstone, known equally well as a harpsichordist, has chosen the Clavier-Übung III warhorse with which to embark on a survey of J.S. Bach’s solo organ repertoire. In recognising that the term ‘Bach organ’ in contentious, his intention is to choose historically-informed restorations on which to interpret the œuvre. The 30-stop two-manual organ in Trondheim, restored by Jürgen Ahrend (1993–4) was built by Joachim Wagner in 1739, the year that Clavier-Übung III was published. Wagner’s chronology almost mirrors Bach’s life and the composer would certainly have known and played other of his instruments.

One example of well-poised articulation and beauty of registration, is the pastoral trio Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot (BWV 678). Johnstone imbues it with clear counterpoint and the organ provides a tonal window into the sound of Wagner’s instruments, other examples of which would have been played by Bach. The contrasting energy behind the first of two settings of Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam BWV 684, the left hand depicting the running water of the Jordan, the right a Cross figure and the pedal the cantus firmus, leaves the listener breathless. Sleeve notes by Johnstone give an overview of the scope of the music and put the instrument in context.

Stephen Farr has chosen to record the same volume of works on the Metzler organ of Trinity College, Cambridge. Built by the Swiss firm in 1975, the 42-stop three-manual instrument retains seven ranks of pipework dating from 1694 and 1708 by ‘Father’ Smith. There is a richer palette at Farr’s disposal and his interpretations are fresh and always compelling. His reading of Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Zorn Gottes wandt (BWV 688) is as quirky in voicing as it is elastic in phrasing and perfect in delivery.

Both releases contain the complete content of Clavier-Übung III, 21 chorale preludes (BWV 669–689) drawing on every available compositional technique and style, followed by four duetti of a secular nature, perhaps more of a nod to the ‘keyboard exercises’, the whole bookended by the great Praeludium pro Organ o Pleno (BWV 552/1) and Fuga (552/2). Packaging of Johnstone’s set on Metronome is in an attractive gatefold wallet; Farr’s version on Resonus comes in a standard rather fragile jewel case. But the sleeve notes included with the Farr recording, written previously by Bettina Varwig, are musicologically revealing; there is also a complete list of the imaginative registrations used throughout.

There is very little to choose between the skill and musicianship revealed in both sets; ideally, Bach devotees should invest in both, but if you need to choose one, Farr’s recording has the warmer and larger palette of the Metzler to enjoy, but with a bigger acoustic which leaves less clarity in heavier registrations. Johnstone’s version is more intimate on this smaller instrument, which really leaves the listener feeling as though they have heard the sounds that Bach heard and in a marvellously successful rebuild. Stylistically Farr tends to respond with more variety and liberty to individual pieces, while Johnstone’s expansive evenness seems to comprehend the scale of his task ahead in journeying through the intégrale.

Matthew Power Read the full review on Agora Classica

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Early Music Today, 2017 - ©Rhinegold Publishing