Reviews

GMCD 7262/63 – Clavierübung III & Sei gegrüsset bei Bach

David Ponsford – Organ

To the CD in our Shop


Church Music Quarterly Reviews 2005

The monumental collection that is Clnvieriübung III, together with the Partita diverse sopra Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütigBWV 768, comprise some of Bach’s finest and most cerebral organ music.
David Ponsford is both a scholar and a performing musician. His scholarship informs and guides his performances: it does not dry the musicianship out of them. Intelligently chosen registrations, for example, help the listener to hear clearly Bach’s masterful counterpoint, while also underlining French influences (where appropriate) and, of course, adding colour and sparkle. Dr Ponsford’s prorgramme notes make instructive reading, discussing succinctly many of the symbolic and structural issues that make Clavierü6ung III such a fascinating collection.
For their combination of scholarship and musicianship, these two discs should be listened to, and their programme notes read, by any student of the organ learning to play any or all of the pieces from Clavierübung III. Others are sure to enjoy this release, too, for sheer listening pleasure.

American Record Guide June 04

Bach’s ‘Clavierubung III’ is one of the monuments of organ literature and has received a number of fine recordings by established organists over the years.
This latest Guild offering features the scholarly David Ponsford turning out a pretty impeccable performance. The work is based on Lutheran Church texts and lasts around 75 minutes in all with a monumental fugue (5-part) that is a popular piece on its own.
Personally, I still prefer Christopher Herrick in this great work as his Gabler Organ in Switzerland is slightly more attuned to the task than the rather modern sounding Edinburgh Greyfriars. Still, that could be a matter of personal taste and I guess you take your pick accordingly!
Ponsford also includes the equally monumental Partita BWV768 and gives a fine interpretation of this glorious work. I haven’t heard alternatives except Walcha and Hurford (DG and Decca) who are only available in complete cycles so Bachians who want this work alone will also enjoy the coupling.
Guild’s recording is crisp and very immediate with fine detailed notes. I await further organ CDs from this source with interest
Gerald Fenech

Choir & Organ November/December

Bach’s Clavierübung is a synthesis and transformation of Baroque styles and ideas in the service of the Lutheran faith. His title page refers to the recreation of music lovers and connoisseurs. Both this and O’Donnell’s recording present the music ‘off the page’. Maybe a more artistic solution is to present the larger chorale preludes framed by the E flat prelude and fugue, presenting the manual preludes and duetti separately.
David Ponsford presents a considered interpretation with a range of beautifully judged registrations. The Collins organ ‘pleno’ choruses are fine in the homophonic texture of the opening prelude but not clear in the complex textures which crown the concluding fugue. The larger setting of ‘Vater unser’ is the heart of Bach’s cycle, bringing together not only the diverse styles of Bach’s time but those from the previous century. The decision to use a registration based on the Grigny’s fugues has resulted in a weak pedal line, undermining what is otherwise a beautifully pointed performance. The recording is natural and clear and the booklet highly informative.
Malcolm Russell

The Organ November 02

Bach’s Clavierübung is an excellent vehicle to demonstrate the qualities of Peter Collins’ organ in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh. Built on the Werkprinzip system and tuned using the 1724 Neidhardt temperament it combines the outstanding qualities of a new instrument with the tonal glories of an early baroque Organ.
David Ponsford uses the full Organ for the ‘greater’ settings and the Positive alone for the ‘lesser’ settings thus allowing us to compare the more intimate, because closer, tones of the Positive to the richer nobility of the full Organ.
I particularly enjoyed the delicacy of his playing for Allein Gott in der Hoh sie Her BWV675 and the clarity he achieves in the Fuga a 5 con pedale BWV552.
While technically excellent there is nothing clinically academic about the playing, the heart of each piece emerging as the musical line unfolds. This is particularly true of the Partita diverse sopra Sei gegrusset,lesu gutig BWV768, which rises to a finely dramatic conclusion – a tribute to organ and performer alike.
BH

MusicWeb Monday December 01 03

The third part of the ‘Clavier-Übung’ was the first collection of music for organ that Bach published, in 1739. The title explains what it is all about: “Third part of the Clavier Übung consisting of various preludes on the catechism and other hymns, for the organ”. It was the first time Bach devoted organ works to the Lutheran catechism. It is not known for what reason Bach composed these works. It is suggested it was connected to the celebrations marking the bicentenary of the Augsburg Confession on 12 August 1739.
The collection contains several settings of the German Kyrie and Gloria, two settings – one pedaliter (for manuals and pedal) and one manualiter (for manuals only) – of each of the six catechism chorales and four duets. The collection opens with the Prelude and closes with the Fugue in E flat (BWV 552). The Clavier-Übung is without any doubt devoted to the Holy Trinity, symbolised by the number 3, which appears in many different ways in the collection.
The liner notes are written by David Ponsford himself. He concentrates mainly on the musical structure, whereas his references to the symbolism in this collection are rather fragmentary. Sometimes his remarks are unclear or present assumptions or possible interpretations as facts. In ‘Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot’ (BWV 678) “the melody is treated in a canon for two voices symbolising the law”. The reader is left with the question what is symbolising the law: the two voices or the canon form? And in what way do they symbolise the law?
His view that the juxtaposition of the Italian style of the pedaliter setting of ‘Wir gläuben all an einen Gott’ (BWV 680) and the French overture style of the manualiter setting (BWV 681) is a symbol of the “inclusive and ecumenical nature of the Creed” seems rather far-fetched. And he believes the final 5-part Fugue “represents Luther’s Evening Blessing”, a view which is certainly not universally shared and which he fails to argue.
An example of incomplete information is the description of the Partite diverse sopra ‘Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig’ (BWV 768), a chorale setting with 6 variations for manuals only and 5 for manuals and pedal. Ponsford presents this work as variations on a Passiontide chorale. He should have added that this piece appears in some manuscripts under the title ‘O Jesu, du edle Gabe’, which is a Communion chorale. He also should have informed the reader that the variations appear in different orders in different manuscripts and that the order he uses is only one possibility.
Although the liner notes suggest Ponsford has paid attention to the symbolism in Bach’s music, he sometimes misses the point. The pedaliter setting of ‘Dies sind die heilgen zehn Gebot’ (BWV 678) contains sighing motifs (‘Seufzer’) and falling chromaticism, which could be interpreted as an expression of the inability of mankind to obey God’s law. In Ponsford’s performance these sighing motifs go by unnoticed, like in ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’ (BWV 682).
In other cases Ponsford shows awareness of Bach’s symbolism but fails to do justice in his performance. In regard to ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ (BWV 684) he rightly states: “Pictorial symbolism may well lay behind the left-hand semiquaver sequences (…). The melody (in the pedal) appears immersed in the waves of the River Jordan, whilst the leaping right-hand motifs are thought to represent signs of the Cross.” But in his interpretation the cantus firmus is registered in such a way that it overpowers the other voices which seriously undermines the symbolism of the piece. The same problem appears in BWV 678 and in the Partita X from BWV 768. It is right that the cantus firmus should be clearly audible but it should never be registered in such a way that the balance between the voices is upset.
This brings me to the registration, which I often find unsatisfying. Some pieces are composed in French style, like ‘Wir gläuben all an einen Gott’ (BWV 681) and ‘Vater unser im Himmelreich’ (BWV 682). Ponsford has registered them with stops that are characteristic for French baroque organs. But the organs Bach has played didn’t have that kind of stops, so these registrations are unhistorical. In general Ponsford seems to prefer rather loud, sometimes even obtrusive registrations.
This is not the only thing that causes me problems in his interpretation. The articulation is fairly inconsistent: legato, non-legato, even staccato. And all notes are treated equally, without a clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ notes. I find his playing rather mechanical and lifeless. It just doesn’t breathe.
I have to say something about the organ. It is a modern organ, built in 1990 by Peter Collins, with mechanical action. “The tuning temperament is by Neidhardt (1724), an unequal temperament that gives individual character to every tonality”. This suggests the organ has been built according to historical principles. But that is not the case. I can’t see what the historical justification is of putting ‘German’ and ‘French’ registers together in one organ. The overall sound of the organ is unpleasant, almost aggressive. The very direct recording only makes it worse.
I am not very happy with this recording. In these works Bach shows a deep understanding of the Biblical teaching and orthodox Lutheran doctrine. But organist and organ don’t have the eloquence to reveal the way Bach has expressed them in his music.
Johan van Veen

International Record Review November 2003

When he published the third volume of his Clavierübung – the first of his organ music to be issued in printed form – Bach was 54 and a musician of national, if not international, repute. In keeping with the previous instalments, the aim was encyclopaedic: a series of choral preludes centred on the Lutheran liturgy, framed by an extended prelude and fugue. The music, as David Ponsford notes, ‘is suffused with religious, musical and numerical symbolism, the depth of which remains less than fully understood today’. In choosing to present himself to the musical public in this way, Bach makes a statement: in terms of his organ music, this is his rnagnum opus.
As such, Clavierübung III presents a challenge to performer and listener alike. Ponsford is an acknowledged authority on French Baroque organ music and a performer who has built his reputation on solid playing and a thorough knowledge of issues in historical performance practice. He plays the 1990 Peter Collins organ at Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, an instrument which seems ideally suited to the purpose. The 16′ plenum is particularly invigorating, and the various permutations for solo registration are thoughtfully explored. The quality of the sound engineering is excellent: listening to it one has a real sense of the presence of the instrument in the building.
Ponsford’s conception of the work is intriguing. Despite the multi-faceted layers of references within the music, a recurrent theme which informs both his booklet notes and performances is the interaction of national musical styles within Clavierübung Ill, particularly the French and Italian. Of the first Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 682) settings, he perceives in the five-part texture and rhythmic notation a possible salute to Nicholas de Grigny; the piece is accordingly registered in the manner of Grigny’s fugues, to ‘reinforce’ the French style. Musically, the result is satisfying, as is the grand jeu of the second setting of Wir glauben all an einen Gott – which apparently is a French overture. Harder to digest, though, is the treatment of Bach’s dotted rhythms in the opening Prelude as notes inégales. There may be plausible reasons for this, but the effect is rather too fey. Indeed, one wonders if the French connection is overdone. After all, French composers were not unique in using dotted rhythms, and the resultant interpretation seems strangely unaffected by the grandeur of the music.
Ponsford’s tempos are alert, although on occasions (Duetto III and BWV 679) they settle after an enthusiastic start; and his playing is neat and accurate. Taken as a whole, however, the performances themselves are somewhat lacking in depth. Greater flexibility in the phrasing or more variety in the articulation would help to maintain the attention, but one does not really sense the profundity of Bach’s conception. Perhaps indeed there is room for a deeper – even holistic – understanding of influences which have a bearing upon this monumental collection.   Warwick Cole

MusicWeb Wednesday October 08 03

The monumental organ works of J S Bach are well known, both from their live popularity in concert and from almost innumerable recordings. However, it is a major listening undertaking to hear the works recorded here, in their intended format. The Clavierübung was Bach’s most monumental undertaking in keyboard music. It is a publication in four parts, of which the first and second consisted of the Six Partitas for harpsichord in part one and the Italian Concerto and French Overture in part two. Part four is The Goldberg Variations, and part three, recorded here, is a linked set of organ pieces based on the fundamental components of the Lutheran liturgy. Although these works were intended for use as individual pieces during a religious service, Bach organised the complete collection along the most stringent architectural, mathematical and liturgical lines. Although most of the works are based on Chorale melodies, Bach uses particular melodies to link to the sections of the Lutheran Mass. This consisted only of the Kyrie and Gloria of the Roman rite. In the Kyrie, Bach uses the same three chorales twice, the first set being for organ with pedals (and probably intended for the principal Sunday morning Hauptgottesdienst,) while the second set is for manuals only and was probably composed for use at the Sunday evening Vespergottesdienst. Following from this Bach includes settings for the Gloria, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Penitence and the Communion, each based on appropriate chorales. As with the Kyries there is in each case a pair of works, one with pedals, one without. Luther’s four teaching precepts are represented by four duets, some of the strictest two part counterpoint Bach ever composed and indicative of the teacher/pupil relationship inherent in the idea of the Catechism. The manuals only version of the Creed setting Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 681 is in the form of a French overture and comes at the halfway point of the collection. A similar use of a French overture at this point occurs in all the other parts of the Clavierübung.
Additionally the entire structure is imbued with Trinitarian references. There are 27 pieces (3x3x3). There are 9 chorale preludes (3×3). The Gloria is set three times in trio textures, spread over the keys of F, G and A, which outline the interval of a third. Additionally the magnificent prelude that opens the collection is in E flat (key signature of 3 flats) and is constructed on three themes. It is almost incomprehensible how this rigour of structure can be possible in music that, at all times, appears of the most fluid beauty and spontaneity.
Strangely, although this is music that repays the most intense study and careful listening, at the same time it is surprisingly easy to enjoy, and even (heaven forbid!) appreciate in the background. Needless to say, there have been many recordings of this great collection. In this new release from Guild both organist and instrument are of UK origin, but both are steeped in the traditions of the German organ school. To make sense of this music it is essential to play it on the right sort of instrument. Of course the big fugues will work on any organ, but the underlying meaning of the structure is greatly helped by the use of an instrument built on the same constructional lines as those for which Bach was writing. The Peter Collins organ of 1990 in the Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh is, in this respect, one of the most suitable in the UK. It is built strictly along the lines of the classical Werkprinzip-System, in which the instrument is divided into distinct sections in independent cases, the Pedal, Great and Positive divisions (equating to the German Pedal, Hauptwerk and Bovenwerk) being based on classical choruses of 16, 8 and 4 foot pitches respectively. There is additionally a Swell division equating to the German Brustwerk and enclosed in a case with shutters. Thus the contrasting natures of chorale melody, accompaniment and harmonic basis can be clearly distinguished in the interpretation. This format treats the organ much more like an orchestra, with its separate string, wind and brass sections, than like a single giant beast, as became the fashion in 19th century organs, especially by the great English builders of that time.
David Ponsford has performed this repertoire for many years and is clearly at home in this musical language. To some extent, the material is so great that the interpreter can have only a limited effect on the aural perception of the music, but generally Ponsford manages to put some stamp of interpretative individuality into most tracks. This is most noticeable in the area of registration, where again the quality of the organ is a great help. Works such as the Fughetta super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her BWV 677 show off the delightfully clear 4 foot flute ranks while the Fughetta super Dies sind die heilgen zehen Gebot BWV 679 demonstrates the 8 foot flutes to equal effect. There is a delightful chiff to the speaking of these stops and the capture of the organ sound is excellent. Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam BWV 684 brings out some fine fluidity of playing in the elaborate accompaniments on the manuals, while the chorale in the pedal is played on a well judged and balanced 8 foot trumpet that manages to avoid dominating the filigree in the manuals. Again the recorded sound is excellent, even to the clarity of the lower-pitched runs of the left hand, which can so easily become muddy. The French overture of Wir glaüben all an einen Gott BWV 681 makes effective use of the Swell’s Cornet and five-rank Plein Jeu to give a sound reminiscent of the organ music of De Grigny or Couperin. This is a slightly unusual registration feature for a basically German organ, but no doubt these stops, together with the 32-foot pedal ranks (that Ponsford wisely avoids using on this recording) increase the range of repertoire that this organ is capable of performing convincingly.
It must be admitted that some of the longer chorale settings tend towards the monotonous at times. Occasionally it would be nice to hear Ponsford be more daring in his variety of articulations. Similarly some of the phrasing could be said to be rather predictable in places. However, that is the interpreter’s prerogative, and it cannot be denied that the overall approach to this recording is scholarly and thoughtful. Invariably the highpoint of any disc of Bach’s music for organ comes in the great Organo Pleno works, and this is no less true here. Most impressive performance is the first setting of Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (BWV 686) that opens the second disc. Here Ponsford chooses a deliberately slow tempo, but as the chorale melody is largely in the pedal he employs the majestic 16-foot Trombone to great effect. It is sobering to think how this music must have sounded in a world where about the loudest noise regularly heard would have been a horse and cart on cobblestones or the hammering from a blacksmith’s forge. This grand music bursting forth from a huge, carved and gilded instrument high up the west wall of the town church must have seemed almost literally to be the very voice of God. This same sense of spacious grandeur is evident in the collection’s most famous work; the Prelude and Fugue in E flat BWV 552. The prelude is magnificent, but it is in the fugue that ends the collection that Bach is at his finest. Here a large organ really does help and the full pleno of the Greyfriars instrument is nothing less than majestic. It is in these large compositions on a broad canvas that David Ponsford also reaches his peaks. The fluent virtuosity apparent in the E flat fugue is most impressive. The smaller scale works seem to present him with greater interpretative difficulties and tend to result in a slightly detached air. The sense of attachment in the big works is much greater and highly enjoyable.
The presentation of this recording is let down rather by some very indifferent cover artwork and less-than-high-quality printing on booklet cover and cd case back. The booklet itself gives good background notes and work listings but would have benefited from more information about the organ, although a specification does appear.
Peter Wells

Classic FM October 2003

“Book Three of Bach’s four sets of Clavier-Übung (‘Keyboard Practice’) is an  exhaustive display of the treatment of organ chorale variations.  The 27 pieces (coupled with Bach’s 11 variations on Sei gegrüsset) are played on the superb Greyfriars Kirk organ in Edinburgh – how well it transfers to disc!  Ponsford is a superb Baroque stylist who brings a touch of romantic swagger to his imaginative registrations.  His crisp attack and thoughtful phrasing complement his own excellent booklet.”
Jeremy Nicholas