Hyperion 10: #5. Bach: Wachet auf! The Schübler, Leipzig and Kirnberger Chorales / Christopher Herrick

One of the most lauded series of CDs produced by Hyperion has been Christopher Herrick’s comprehensive traversal of Bach’s organ works. His recording of the Great Fantasias, Preludes and Fugues, now reissued at half price, has given me much pleasure recently, but for personal reasons I will choose the Schübler, Leipzig and Kirnberger Chorales to write about here.

A single piece prompted me to buy the CD, namely the chorale prelude on ‘Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit’, BWV668. I’ve lost track of the exact sequence of events, but it was played as a voluntary at my uncle’s funeral and/or memorial service in 1998, and I believe a little after that it cropped up in an A-level practice paper (as ‘Wenn wir in höchsten Nöten sein’, BWV668a, essentially the same piece). Keen to track it down on CD, and perhaps restricted by the paltry amount of information available online all those years ago, I phoned up Bath Compact Discs for help. I got a response from a helpful man who recommended Herrick strongly and so I bought it. It was probably the most expensive recording they had of the piece, which may have influenced his advice. A good salesman, anyway, and more inspiring of confidence than the girl who later tried to sell me Stravinsky’s ‘Shirtso à la Rousset’.

I’m not enough of a connoisseur of Bach’s organ music (or of the organ in general) to be able to differentiate too much between different interpretations, but in these pieces I’m not sure Herrick is generally regarded as the absolute front-runner. I imagine aficionados have strong opinions on his tempi, which tend towards the fast, particularly in the slower preludes. I don’t think I’d really like to hear ‘Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele’, BWV654, or ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’, BWV659, played much faster than they are here, for example, but by and large I find his choice of speeds very agreeable, and if any music is able to benefit from multiple and disparate interpretations, this music is.

Herrick may be at his best in the vivacious, barnstorming chorales like ‘Komm, Heiliger Geist Herre Gott’, BWV651, which opens the Leipzig set, or ‘Komm, Gott Schöpfer, Heiliger Geist’, BWV667, the prelude to its tender conclusion (not that these should be listened to as a set – little and often is probably the advisable prescription). That said, there is a great delicacy to his performances of some of the more elegiac pieces. ‘An Wasserflüssen Babylon’, BWV653, is one I return to often.

The model of the Kirnberger preludes is simpler and than those of the other pieces – the Communion prelude ‘Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier’, BWV706, for instance, is simply (simply!) a harmonic setting of the chorale melody, rather than an original piece using the melody as its backbone with Bach’s ornamental counterpoint woven around it. They may not, then, provide the greatest specimens of Bach’s genius, but they still have their beauty, and form a pleasing and effective contrast when placed against his more complex and intricate music as they are here.

Herrick exploits the qualities of the attractive Metzler organ of Lucerne’s Jesuitenkirche admirably. There are only a couple of Metzlers in the UK, one of which is a superb instrument in the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. As a whole I find the disc a delight, and as good an introduction as any to Bach’s organ music, which is a body of work too ingenious and too profound to be ignored.

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