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J. S. Bach
Little Organ Book  / Orgel-Büchlein, BWV 599-644
Jaroslav Tůma

F10156   [8595017415623]   released 4/2007

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Jaroslav Tůma – organ at the St Peter church, Bruchsal, Germany (built by Vladimír Šlajch, Borovany, 2004)

The Orgelbüchlein of Johann Sebastian Bach

The Orgelbüchlein (Little Organ Book), a collection of chorale preludes, was made by Johann Sebastian Bach while in Weimar. He wanted to continue composing it in Köthen, originally planning 165 chorale preludes, but ultimately managed to complete only 46 of them (or actually 45, since the chorale “Liebster Jesu” appears here in two almost identical versions). The reason he did not finish the collection is that once in the service of Prince Leopold at Köthen, Bach had fewer opportunities than before to devote himself to the organ.
     The title page of the collection is charming. In it, Bach writes that the book provides the beginning organist with instructions on performing chorale preludes in various ways and how to gain facility in the use of the pedal. He dedicates his work in honour of God on high, and to his fellow man to learn from.
     The chorale preludes of the Orgelbüchlein are miniatures. They are exquisite pearls, which reveal not only ingenious polyphonic thinking, but also Bach’s firm faith in God, not only on the outside, but also, indeed especially, deep inside, as something he experienced intensely. The outward religious feeling is manifested by the ordering of the composed chorale preludes, that is, according to possible use during the liturgical year. The inward religious feeling comes from the immeasurable profundity of the musical expression. No one before Bach, and probably no one after him, ever achieved such refined compositional mastery of polyphonic work with theme and counter-theme, nor power of emotional effect using elements of Baroque tonal symbolism. The sighs of pain, the theme of the Cross, the fall of Adam, angels’ wings, tremendous joy, all these are attributes that Bach incorporated perfectly into music that flows logically, is harmonically rich, sounds natural, and is uplifting and spirited. 
     The various pitfalls facing the organist in their interpretation are all the greater owing to the small size of these inconspicuous little compositions. The sequence of tempos, the distinctness of voices, the lucidity of the individual verses, and the effective construction of musical phrase, all must be well thought out and balanced. One of the greatest problems is registration (the selection of stops). There is a fairly widespread superstition that the Orgelbüchlein can be performed as a whole only on large organs. The reason is that many people believe there is a direct correlation between the number of stops in an organ and the range of timbre, which such an organ can produce. It would, however, be excessively logical, if on every organ one could always take advantage of each theoretically imaginable combination to achieve the desired sound. The opposite tends to be true. Some stops do not go together at all with others. The reason is that a good organ is not a machine. It is a work of art. Just as a Stradivarius differs from a factory-made violin, so too does a factory-made organ differ from one by a master organ-maker, built with the greatest craftsmanship and a highly developed sense of the intonation of each pipe.
     The organ in Bruchsal, near Karlsruhe, Germany, which was built by Vladimír Šlajch in 2004 and set into the original Baroque case built by Johann Philipp Seuffert in 1769, is one such gem. Its thirty registers in two manuals and pedals perfectly meet the demands of classic organ polyphony on the sounds of the pipes, clarity of tone, and variety of timbre. Each traditional combination of registers, as well as less traditional ones, is possible here, and is absolutely satisfactory in tone.
     The Church of St Peter, Bruchsal, the burial place of the bishops of Speyer, is an example of outstanding Neo-Classical architecture. It was designed by Balthasar Neumann of Würzburg. The acoustics of the crossing and its cupola are rich in echo, though crystal clear. My aim is to present the chorale preludes of the Orgelbüchlein as a musical whole, which has, despite its torso-like character, a profound philosophical meaning. It is also my aim to demonstrate that the influences of the traditional organ-making of Saxony, Bohemia, and central Europe can in general still be adapted today to make an instrument that serves Bach’s immortal music in an ideal way.

Jaroslav Tůma

Further recordings by Jaroslav Tůma:

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