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5 Stars review in Fanfare (US)

October 6, 2021

Colin Clarke

SCHUMANN Sechs Fugen über den Namen BACH, op. 60. Sechs Studien nach canonischer Form, op. 56.  Jens E. Christensen (org)  OUR RECORDINGS 6.220615 (63:28)
Whatever the repertoire, the Danish company OUR Recordings has produced consistently fine engineering for its discs. This Schumann organ recital is no exception: the Danish engineers capture the sound of the Vor Frelser Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in Copenhagen to perfection. Built by the Botzen Brothers in 1696-98, the principal organ pipes of which are the oldest in Copenhagen. The organ was restored in 1965 by Poul-Gerhard Andersen after a period of silence from 1889. The recording perfectly captures the pedals and allows the definition to the bass this music deserves: try the climax of the Fugue, op. 60/4 for a fine example of this. This is a 32-bit DXD recording (Digital eXtreme Definition) and it shows: the sound alone is remarkable.
It is certainly true that when it comes to the Romantic Bach revival, it is Mendelssohn who springs first to mind. But then one remembers Schumann’s arrangements of the Solo Violin Sonatas and Cello Suites (adding piano parts) and this disc starts to make more sense.
Some of the pieces here are for organ or “pedalflügel," a hybrid instrument hired by the Schumanns in 1943 which combined a Friedrich Wieck piano with a pedal keyboard, which enabled the performance of Bach’s organ music on a piano. Inspired by Carl Nielsen’s advice to fellow composer Ture Rängstrom that one has to dig to the roots of a piece so it can truly flower, this album is called “The Roots & The Flowers: Counterpoint in Bloom”.
The shift from the rigor of the Fugues to the more flowing world of the first Study in Cnonic Form is fascinating and unmissable. Christensen finds just the right sense of ease to his delivery of op. 56/1 after the close of the Fugue, op. 60/2. The second Study is a minor-key pastorale (A-Minor, with a rather nice A-Major close): Christensen untangles the lines when they accrue superbly just as he projects a sense of peace in the third (E-Major).
Interesting how the move back into specifically fugal terrain is so marked: after op. 56/3, Christensen presents us with the beautifully restrained third Fugue in G-Minor and marked “Mit sanfter Stimmen” (with soft voices) I like the way Christensen segments the theme of the Fugue, op. 60/4 into dyads (Clara Schumann’s edition, published Breitkopf, Leipzig, 1881, implies longer phrases); his way to the climax is once again expert, with a wondrous opening out of the organ’s tone towards the fortissimo; and as the counterpoint becomes more involved, he laudably keeps the tempo rock steady, which further aids the cumulative effect. Similarly, the following wind-down in this piece is superb, in effect one long outbreath.
The “Innig” Study, op. 56/4 is fascinating: it starts as a clear Song without Words before bamboozling the listener with a far more adventurous “Etwas lebhaft” (Somewhat lively). Christensen is unsurprisingly at pains to underline the contrasts (unsurprising because of the layout of his disc, which juxtaposes sets of fugues with sets of studies). The fifth study comes as something of a surprise as it is remarkably playful, and how Christensen enjoys its jaunty staccato (afficionados of high fidelity over the years may remember Virgil Fox’s delightful performance of this, in massively separated “Living Stereo”, on a disc of encores on RCA that includes a Widor Toccata that seemed to go for some sort of world speed record and concluded with Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory”). The final Study is a radiant chorale-like Adagio in B-Minor which unfolds under Christensen’s fingers and feet with serene inevitability, registration perfectly chosen.
The disc ends with the final two Fugues of op. 60. As with op. 56/5, the penultimate piece here is friskier than the rest, here an angular nut jaunty fugue in F-Major. Christensen paces the final B flat-Major Fugue perfectly, tracing its incremental intensity to perfection.
There is of course competition here: Andres Rothkopf on Audite at the Walcker organ in Hofenheim, Baden (Germany) is a fine alternative (and he adds the Skizzen, op. 58), while I find Joseph Berger a little rushed in the Studies. Some may remember a lovely Olympia disc of the Six Fugues on BACH by Maria Makarova (coupled with music by Bach and Liszt), although sonically that one is now out of the picture. Perhaps the interpreter that comes closest to Christensen’s intelligent approach is Mario Hospach-Martini on Berlin Classics, another fine musician who has the bonus of including the op. 58 Skizzen but who in terms of sonics just loses out to Christensen; plus, Christensen is that bit more flowing in the fugues.
So, to sum up this new Danish recording: spectacularly beautiful music, superbly played on a fine instrument in a splendid acoustic, all caught in an expert recording. Bit early to tell if it makes the final cut as yet, but this is a prime Wants List candidate if ever there was one. Colin Clarke

five stars: Spectacularly beautiful music, superbly played on a fine instrument in a splendid acoustic