COMMENTS ON RECORDINGS OF BACH ORGAN WORKS
by
Joel Warren Lidz, Ph.D.

I would rate the large sets as follows, from best to less good:

Two of the best recordings can be obtained as MP3 files. Dr James Kibbie's recordings can be found free of charge at http://www.blockmrecords.org/bach/ and Olivier Vernet's are available at a number of sites such as Rhapsody, and are also available in CD format. Other recordings include:


Olivier VERNET (Ligia): Has the positive qualities of his teacher, Chapuis (below) plus the advantage of better organs and better sound.


Michel CHAPUIS (Valois): very spontaneous, revealing a love of playing. Some fascinating registrations on historical instruments: check out the A Major Fugue. Great recording for 1968. Available from France for about $80.

Kevin BOWYER's (Nimbus) seventeen volume set is unique by virtue of being the most comprehensive, including many spurious works, works normally performed on harpsichord, etc. He plays a modern instrument by Marcussen and does so with considerable energy. He includes fugues from the Musical Offering and the entire Art of Fugue.

VARIOUS PERFORMERS (Hanssler): The attractive point of this set is the sampling of marvelous historical instruments. Since there are roughly five different performers in this set, much depends on your feelings about their playing. For the most part, the playing ranges from perfectly acceptable to outstanding, and the sound is excellent. This set is well worth obtaining.

Wolfgang RUBSAM (Philips): Infinitely better than his more recent Naxos recordings. Energetic but less spontaneous than Chapuis with more conventional registrations than Chapuis. Here's what the Pipedreams (http://pipedreams.mpr.org/) web page says about it:

"Wolfgang Rubsam (Philips 438 170-2; 16-disc box, including Art of the Fugue) offers arguably
the finest recording of Bach's music ever made, featuring an exceptional pair of Metzler
instruments vividly captured in rich ambience. Interpretations are always cogent, imaginative,
and involved. Rubsam's playing combines the finest aspects of his teachers, Helmut Walcha
(discipline and total integrity) and Marie-Claire Alain (subtle nuance and rythmic verve). In
Rubsam's more recent Bach cycle (on the budget-priced Naxos label, available separately) you'll
enjoy a greater variety of historic and modern instruments, but the artist's interpretations are
somewhat more individualistic, even provocative, still arresting if not quite main-stream. The
Naxos discs do have the advantage of low cost and easy availability, while the big Philips set
may be maddeningly hard to find, though it's sure to please."

Lionel ROGG (Harmonia Mundi) could have been a near-first choice because the organ (Arlesheim, Switzerland) is one of the best used in near-complete sets, but his playing would have benefitted from a bit more energy and innovation.

Simon PRESTON (DGG) is worth hearing, but somewhat eccentric. His use of staccato is questionable and the organ is a bit muddy at times. Worth hearing if not buying.

Ton KOOPMAN (Teldec). I find his use of ornamentation excessive at times, but the playing is arresting in its originality of conception and very energetic. Personally, I would not consider this a first choice as the counterpoint is a bit muddy. And it's not cheap. Koopman's shorter set on Novalis set left me unimpressed.

Hans FAGIUS (BIS) is also good, but I find listening to lot of Nasard tiring. (His Mendelssohn is fabulous, far better than his Bach.) Now available very cheaply on Brilliant Classics, but Chapuis is a much better choice.

Christopher HERRICK (Hyperion) is expensive and nothing really special.

Peter HURFORD's first recording (London) is fine but on inauthentic instruments.

Jean GUILLOU is a great virtuoso, but his Dorian recordings are a joke in my opinion. He made an earlier recording (on a Pierrre Verany CD) which was marvelous, as did Newman when he was a grad student (on an out of print LP).

Helmut WALCHA (463 712-2 DGG) played before much was known of Baroque performance practice. Blind from childhood, his playing is Teutonically severe with emphasis on the works' structural integrity. Some find his playing stodgy (I lean in this direction), but others find him revelatory. The recording quality is excellent. An earlier mono set he made has also been released (Deutsche Grammophon 474 747-2), though I have not heard it.

I have heard bits of Wolfgang Stockmeier, Gerhard Weinberger and Werner Jacob, whom I do not consider competitive.


CONCLUSION - Which set to buy depends on what is most important to you -- completeness, instrument, playing style, what happens to be available when you're ready to buy, etc. All in all, in my personal opinion, I would give the vote to Vernet for his originality, sound quality (instruments and recording) and liveliness. Bowyer is a second choice by virtue of his set's unique comprehensiveness.

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