Review by steviev November 30, 2013 (3 of 5 found this review helpful)
|Five organs, five musicians, five discs, 130 pieces, 350 minutes, 45 dollars.
Pachelbel's fugues, on average, last just over two minutes here. The fugue subject appears in almost every bar of almost every fugue, so I'm hard-pressed to say whether these are 2-, 3-, or 4-voice fugues. Only occasionally does Pachelbel fragment and develop his subjects in any way or otherwise shift the focus to his countersubjects; and when he does, it doesn't last long. You'll search in vain here for anything like Bach's epic 10-minute fugues with their dramatic long-range harmonic plans and lengthy countersubject divagations. The two longest fugues are double fugues where the two subjects, each presented separately, are then combined in a brilliant third fugue, all flowing attacca each after the other. Pachelbel's subjects are usually rhythmically distinctive, so most of his fugues are easy to follow. Pedal action is minimal and non-virtuoso.
Pachelbel may have invented this form, the organ chorale. Pachelbel's chorale settings average less than three minutes apiece here, so again there's less elaboration than in Bach's settings. Overall, Pachelbel's are not as memorable as Bach's, but they're effective and don't overstay their welcome, which is a failing in some of Bach's longer chorale elaborations. You could say the same thing when comparing these two composers' fugues.
This is a puzzling form, and the notes offer no help at all. Essentially each one starts out like a fugue (though the subject is rhythmically bland) with a subject and response accompanied by flowing counterpoint, but then the subject disappears for some time and, unlike the fugues, we get long stretches of free counterpoint only occasionally punctuated by the subject. So these pieces lack the predictable rigor of Pachelbel's fugues and also tend to ramble aimlessly for up to five minutes. For me these were the least interesting pieces in the set.
ARIAS & VARIATIONS (8):
Simple, short melodies followed by typical and predictable figurative variations, each one enjoyable in itself and none ever lasting longer than it should.
PRELUDES (5) and TOCCATAS (5):
Pachelbel's most flamboyant and brilliant music lies in his preludes and toccatas. They sound like notated improvs, very spontaneous, little to no counterpoint, significant pedal presence. Unlike the homey, housebroken quality of his fugues and chorale settings, in these pieces Pachelbel lets his hair down and has some fun. Once again, in contrast to Bach or Buxtehude, his forms are compact, most lasting less than three minutes.
I can only guess the "bi" in bicinium refers to the two-part texture, where one hand plays a choral tune as the other hand plays figuration in faster motion. These are essentially simpler, less-elaborate chorale settings.
One of the fantasies, placed between a short prelude and fugue on the present recording, is mobile and a bit nervous, whilst the other is somber and meditative. Both sound improvised and lack counterpoint, and they're both attractive.
These two chaconnes, D-minor and F-major, are among the most expressive and emotive works in the set. The D-minor is grim and dramatic -- very typical of the form. The F-major will remind you of Pachelbel's Canon in its calm, flowing, gently resigned melancholy. If you want to be "moved," grab disc two and jump straight to either of these pieces.
This is an impressive and imposing five minutes of minor-mode counterpoint that sounds much like a fugue but, strictly speaking, is not a fugue.
This trove of music was recorded on five different organs around Germany. These are very old organs, all built in Bach's lifetime (though after Pachelbel's death) in the early 1700s and recently restored, with the largest pipes at 16-foot. Full disposition charts of each organ are provided in the booklet, as are the particular registrations chosen for each and every piece -- a thoughtful touch for organ geeks -- along with 18 pages of photographs of the organs and the churches that house them.
Each disc is a self-contained programme unto itself, each played by a different organist on a different historic organ. The first four discs have a diverse, satisfying mix of fugues, chorales, preludes, variations, et cetera, and make for good straight-through listening. Disc five, however, ends with six themes-and-variations in a row. The notes make clear that these six variation pieces were published together as a set, but that doesn't mean they should be heard back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back! Registrations for every piece, and even individual variations, are sensitively chosen by the artists for maximum sonic variety and clarity, thus minimizing the fatigue I often feel while listening to a long stretch of solo organ music. This collection really is a sensuous pleasure, which is not something I can usually say about organ recordings.
I like all the performers. Each man plays with clear rhythms in relatively straightforward fashion, unlike my only other point of reference in this music, Wolfgang Ruebsam on Naxos, who lingers for no apparent reason every few seconds, lumpy phrasing, herky-jerky playing throughout. Also, Ruebsam's instrument grates over time and his registration choices are less apt than those of our five artists here. Pachelbel is not a virtuoso composer, especially not in the pedals when compared to Bach, so the artists are not pushed to any technical extremes in this music, nor do they rush tempos to whip up artificial excitement where none is really written into the score. Pachelbel's muse is workmanlike and efficient, and these five men honor and respect his aesthetic through their performances.
----------- THE SOUND -----------
Perfection. All five organs are recorded clearly, intimately, with great detail, including clunking mechanical sounds, the odd rattlebuzz of a cabinet or pipe, mysterious huffs and sighs (not from the musicians), and strong pedal tones even though the largest pipes are 16-footers. There's a decent amount of reverb too, varying a little from organ to organ but not exceeding about three seconds or so -- it's cozy, not Grand. The organ on disc four is tuned in meantone instead of the equal-temperament we all know so well, which makes for some really pungent and unexpected dissonances. The ears adjust after a time, sort of.
As a technical note, discs one through four are 5.0, but disc five is 5.1. All five discs have ample and strong bass with or without a subwoofer, so listeners with five full-range speakers and no subwoofer are missing none of the bass on disc five -- it's all there in the 5.0 by itself.
------------ COMPLETISTS BEWARE -----------
Are you a completist? Does the Complete Whatevers of Whoever make your pupils dilate and wallet explode with joy? I can answer yes to both questions, especially when we're talking a mere $9 per SACD in state-of-the-art sound. I want to warn you, fellow completists, that this is an estimable set, but based on his organ music Herr Johann Pachelbel was no genius -- no, he was a dutiful and competent church composer. He got the job done, with a minimum of inspiration and/or perspiration. Very few of these pieces are memorable, and I doubt you'll spin these discs more than once or twice.
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