Final concert in marathon Bach organ project at Cathedral of Saint Paul

The Bach Project: Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley play the complete organ works of J.S. Bach throughout 2015; final concert

Michael Stewart, Richard Apperley, organ

Wellington Cathedral of St. Paul

Friday, 4 December 2015, 6pm

Yet another varied programme in the Bach Project, for this final concert in the year-long project. This time, being at a more user-friendly hour than most of the performances have been, there was a good-sized audience. There was an Advent and Christmas theme running through the choice of chorale preludes.

Opening with a chorale prelude that was not familiar to me, though on a very familiar chorale: ‘Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme’ (‘Wake up! A voice is calling us’). This one was catalogued in the appendices (Anh.II 66). The second part of these (i.e. II) refers to works of doubtful authenticity. This work was unusual: it was written for trumpet and organ. Richard Apperley played the trumpet part on the trumpet stop on the organ, standing, while Michael Stewart played the organ part. It all came off very well and was most effective, the trumpet giving the music life.

There followed two settings of ‘Christum wir sollen loben schon’ (‘We should indeed praise Christ’), BWV 696 and 611, the latter from the Orgelbüchlein. The first is a fughetta (little fugue), and is slow and solemn, while the latter is more extensive and florid, while being harmonically interesting.

Two chorale preludes on ‘Wir Christenleut’ (‘We Christians’) next, the first BWV 1090 and the second deest (not to be found in Bach catalogues). The first was played with a lovely variety of registrations, bringing out the counterpoint strongly, while the second featured gorgeous running lines. However, the chorale, played on the pedals, sounded rather dull and unimportant in contrast with the bright upper parts.

‘Vom Himmel kam der Engel Schaar’ (‘From heaven came the angel host’, BWV 607) is an affirmative and joyful piece, not very long, as is typical of Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book) chorale preludes.

Bach set the lovely chorale ‘Vom Himmel hoch, da komm’ ich her’ (‘From heaven above to earth I come’) numbers of times. The first setting played (BWV 701) is a short and delightful one for manuals only, while the second (BWV 769) is a set of canonic variations of varying tempi and amazing complexity. It certainly demonstrated what Bach could do, when he wrote it in order to join the select ‘Society for the Musical Sciences’. The programme note says “One of the very greatest achievements in contrapuntal writing, surpassed only be his own Art of Fugue!” Surely no-one but Bach could compose such a work.

The third variation, a canon at the seventh, is marked andante, is thus slower and less active than its predecessor. It particularly appealed to me. Variation 4 had a somewhat duller sound as against the bright chorale melody. Variation 5 was complex, but jubilant. Much dexterity was demanded of the organist here, to bring all to a triumphant conclusion.

Michael Stewart took a well-earned rest after this, and Richard Apperley took over. He began with the two glorious chorale preludes on ‘In dulci jubilo;: BWVs 729 and 608. The grand 729 has a dramatic effect; the other is lighter and clearer. With quieter registration, it gives more of a feeling of wonder. However, the resonance in the Cathedral played havoc somewhat with the runs in both, and some of the variations are lost. Exciting, both of them, though very different.

Two short and interesting chorale preludes followed: ‘Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich’, BWV 732 and ‘Der Tag, der ist so freudenreich’, BWV 719, and then it was Concerto in C, BWV 595. This full-blooded work contained many contrasts. Not being restricted (or inspired) by a set of words, this is much more ‘absolute music’ than the other works. Many enchanting figures and developments flowed, yet without a Biblical or poetic theme, it lacked some of the subtle nuances of the chorale preludes.

It was followed by three of the latter, treating the same words: ‘Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ’ (‘Praise to you, Jesus Christ’, BWVs 722, 697, 604). All are short, and two are set for manuals only – though I have a suspicion that in the edition Richard Apperley was using the pedals were employed in the first one. That one had plenty going on, while the second was so appealing I wanted it to go on for longer, with its bright registration including a two-foot rank. The third was smooth and mellow.

‘Puer natus in Bethlehem’ (BWV 603; ‘A child is born in Bethlehem’) has received many wonderful settings, and this gentle and thoughtful piece is one of the best.

The recital finished with a major work: Fuga a 5 con pedale pro organo pleno BWV 562/2, to give it its full title. This is the fugue that follows the Prelude BWV 552/1, with which the Bach Project opened, many months ago. It is a three-part fugue, each part having a different character and time signature. The opening theme resembles the hymn tune for ‘O God, our help in ages past’, so in English this is often called the St. Anne fugue, that being the name of the hymn tune.

It is a great and complex fugue, with much melodic and harmonic interest. This was the grandest way in which to see off this year-long series of performances of all of Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ music. Its supremely positive ending mood lifts the spirits, as does the thought of the achievement of Michael Stewart and Richard Apperley in undertaking and completing the project.

And there are plans for more ‘Complete works…’ projects next year. Watch this space!

Review by Rosemary Collier on Middle-C