Organ Master Series Volume 3
Priory CD 753 is the third volume of the Organ Master Series was recorded on the Phelps/Casavant organ of Deer Park United Church(external link), Toronto, and the Lawrence Phelps & Associates Organ of St. Luke's Episcopal Church(external link), Ft. Collins, Colorado. A tribute to the mastery of the late great American organbuilder Lawrence Phelps (to whom, in a unique partnership of builder and performer, Gillian Weir was married for 26 years), these three volumes of the Organ Master Series reveal the magnitude, scope and detail of Phelps' tonal design. In this third volume, Gillian Weir deftly displays Bach's genius in counterpoint, drawing upon the superb polyphonic clarity present in these organs. The discs are accompanied by an extensive program booklet packed with 30 pages of information.
An appropriate subtitle for this recording would be The Joy of Bach. While recordings of J.S. Bach's organ music abound these days (many of them very fine), there is only one Dame Gillian Weir. She is without peer in her ability to do everything right and make it all sound so effortless, spontaneous, and joyful. The program includes the six “Schübler” Chorales, the Pastorale in F, the Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch,” and the Chorale Partita on “O Gott, du frommer Gott.” The center of the program is the complete Clavierübung, Part III. Dame Gillian elects to present the four Duetti first, followed by the Manualiter Chorales. She then plays the Greater Chorales, framed by the Prelude and Fugue in E-flat. She suggests that in this ordering of the pieces, distinct moods are created and a constant “clashing of keys” is avoided. It also makes theological sense: the manualiter preludes reflect the aims of the Lesser Catechism, for the young in a domestic setting, while “the magnificent outburst of the Prelude in E-flat opens the doors to a great church and an adult understanding.” In all the repertoire here presented, Gillian Weir plays with infectious energy, deftness, and well-defined articulation. She has taught students in masterclasses that much of Bach's music is permeated with dance rhythms, and requires special attention to phrasing and gesture. This is clearly evident in her own playing. Although her tempos are usually brisk, she never plays with empty virtuosity; everything she does serves the spirit and substance of the music. Thus, to take a few examples from the Greater Chorales, the “Allein Gott” trio sparkles, leaps, and dances in praise to the Almighty. There is an effervescent sparkle in the Baptism hymn, “Christ, unser Herr,” and a sense of weightlessness in the leaping patterns of “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland.” But in “Aus tiefer Not'” we are cast into a spirit of heaviness, yearning, and pathos. In Dame Gillian's hands, the music itself is a sermon.
This is the third volume of the Organ Master Series, in which Gillian Weir plays on instruments built or designed by her late husband, Lawrence Phelps (1923-99). She chose these two instruments for their ability to render Bach's music with the requisite polyphonic transparency. She says, “[Bach's] medium... must have polyphonic clarity, a clarity that arises from perfect internal balance: a treble-to-bass balance echoing that of a fine choir or orchestra, and an equitable balance between the organ's different families of stops and between its divisions. The ear is then led through the music's intricacies and hears all its intimacies.” Indeed these instruments live up to that expectation, and in so doing, not only render Bach's music clearly but also the fineness of Dame Gillian Weir's playing. The American Organist, October 2004
“Gillian Weir celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of the installation of her late husband's (Lawrence Phelps) organ at Hexham Abbey in Britain with a recording that displays her impeccable technique and amazingly solid, vibrant rhythm to splendid advantage. The repertoire matches perfectly the clean, extremely transparent voicing of Phelps' two-manual masterpiece.” The Diapason, May 2004
“Dame Gillian is at the peak of her very considerable powers. Over and above the prodigious technical accomplishment, her compelling artistry — the quality of which is recognisable in each item, small or large — makes for a highly enriching experience, straight from the heart and second to none for those who seek JSB's refreshment of the Spirit.” Organists' Review, May 2004
“156 Minutes of Organ Bliss as Dame Gillian Weir's Acclaimed Series Continues in Welcome Style: The area of Bach organ recordings is terribly overcrowded these days, with strong ‘complete’ editions from Bowyer, Herrick, Koopman et al, but I urge all readers to squeeze just those few extra millimeters of shelving to accomodate this third volume of Dame Gillian Weir's highly acclaimed series. As with the first two volumes, she has chosen instruments designed by her late husband, the North American organbuilder and musician Lawrence Phelps (1923-1999). The honours are split fairly evenly between the three-manual built in 1970 for Toronto and the 1974 two-manual in Colorado.
Her playing during these two and a half hours of organic bliss really is beyond all praise. From the unfussy Schübler Chorale Prelude on Wachet Auf! at the start of disc 1, until the sparkling eighth variation on O Gott du frommer Gott, on disc 2, we are whisked along through the Clavier-Übung III.
Weir pays scrupulous attention to the text, at the same time bringing a poetic tenderness to even the most convoluted counterpoint. A combination of colourful registrations, steady wind and a wonderful sense of line and forward direction make a thrilling tour de force. Nothing sound contrived. Judicious tempi allow one to relish the most delicious of Bach's harmonic progressions.
The accompanying documentation, including a highly readable commentary, must be Priory's most sumptuosly appointed booklet to date. The sound is close-miked but not intrusive. Volume 4 (St Thomas's, Leipzig) promises to be even more attractive.” Malcolm Riley, Gramophone, June 2004
“This is the latest release from Priory in its series of discs documenting the organs of Lawrence Phelps, and played by his widow, Gillian Weir. The more I hear of this series, the more I find them to be a priceless store of treasures, bearing witness to one of the world's finest players, in the years of her greatest maturity. One often hears polite Bach-playing, decent Bach-playing, correct Bach-playing, but Weir reveals another level of musicianship altogether. The playing is powerful, individual, expressive and thought-through. On this disc are to be found some of the most audacious pieces ever written by Bach: the Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’, the Clavierübung III and the Schübler Chorales. They are matched by audacious playing that is neither old-fashioned in its approach nor overly correct. There is clarity and rhythmic drive from start to finish, through the lesser-known delights of the four Duetti to the familiar majesty of the Prelude and Fugue in E flat (the St Anne). The colours of the organ are used with imagination and taste, and only ever at the service of the music. A desert-island release, if ever there were one.” William Whitehead, BBC Music Magazine, April 2004
“Piquant, rhythmically buoyant and superbly colored accounts of 36 chorale preludes and other pieces played on organs in Toronto and Colorado by the doyenne of Bach organists” 5-stars. Jeremy Nicholas, Classic FM, March 2004
“Dame Gillian Weir is one of the most highly esteemed organists in the world, performing organ works from the Renaissance up to contemporary compositions. Her recording reputation is likely most advanced by her readings for Priory of the complete organ works of Olivier Messiaen. In addition to being a highly acclaimed concert soloist, Weir has excelled in the field of teaching and is in strong demand as a judge at international competitions. She was nominated by Classic CD magazine as one of the 100 Greatest Keyboard Players of the 20th Century, and the Sunday Times selected her as one of the 1000 Music Makers of the Millennium.
For this Bach set of performances, Weir plays two Phelps organs, one built in 1974 and housed in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the other built in 1970 and housed in Toronto. Both organs have mechanical key and electric stop action, and they sound splendid in Weir's hands. Each of the organs has abundant strength to convey Bach's powerful works such as the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 while also offering the tenderest passages such as in the Pastorale in F major.
The new 2-CD set is my first encounter with Weir's Bach, and I am greatly impressed. Overall, her style in Bach is highlighted by light textures and a wonderful rhythmic buoyancy. Yet, when Bach's severity and power are called for, there is no stinting. Registrations are always attractive, and the articulation is consistently interesting. However, it is the warmth of Bach that most represents Weir's approach to his music.
Being a Bach organ enthusiast, I am familiar with most of the Bach organ recordings made over the past few decades. Dame Gillian Weir more than holds her own when compared to this vast recorded repertoire. Other Bach organists may surpass Weir concerning distinctive registrations, incisive articulation, and the presentation of musical severity and sweep. However, she has no peers when the subject is Bach's lyricism and rhythmic flow. Undoubtedly, her new recording is a major addition to the organ discography of Bach, and I urge readers to investigate her performances.
Here is a more detailed description of the music and interpretations:-
Schübler Chorales – These masterful six chorales are a testimony to Bach's command of counterpoint, which simply refers to the simultaneous playing of different melody lines set against each other. Weir conveys Bach's command superbly, and delivers as fine a set of the six chorales as any other on record.
Most impressive are Weir's delightful rhythmic flows that are lively and irresistible. Also, the light textures she employs work wonderfully except in BWV 648 where she tends to dilute the gravity of the subject matter with a rhythmic pattern that's somewhat jaunty. On EMI, Werner Jacob gives the piece a demonstrative and ceremonial nature far removed from Weir's rather cheery reading.
Weir's performances of BWV 645 and 647 are amongst the best I have heard. In BWV 645, her quick tempo and vibrant rhythms are invigorating, and she creates urgency through her greater speed and incisive inflections. BWV 647 is a mixture of severity and enlightenment, perfectly caught.
Pastorale in F major and Canonic Variations – These are two under-appreciated works that bask in the glow of Bach's love of making music. The Pastorale is in four movements, highlighted by a mesmerizing drone bass in each movement. I find the work thoroughly uplifting, and you won't find another composition in the Bach corpus that surpasses the Pastorale in terms of offering Bach's comfort and security. Even the 3rd Movement pleading aria in a minor key has tremendously effective rays of light. Most impressive are the 1st Movement's lsquo;bag-pipe’ refrains and the 2nd Movement's infectious rhythms and voice interplay. Lionel Rogg has been my standard for the Pastorale but now has to share this distinction with Gillian Weir. As with the previous works discussed, she has an uncanny knack for finding just the right rhythmic flows to use, and it works to perfection in the 2nd Movement where she is bubbling with the elixir of life. Concerning the rays of light I mentioned in the 3rd Movement, Weir's strike to the heart immediately.
The Canonic Variations is one of Bach's prime examples of canonic form. In its simplest form, a voice carries the basic melody line and is followed some bars later by another voice with the same melody. However, the second voice can take the melody and invert it, alter its speed, alter its pitch, and even change the music's nature. The result sounds like a panorama of multiple themes when it is in reality only one theme subjected to a series of technical devices.
The architectural command that Bach brings to his Canonic Variations is beyond compare, and Weir revels in the technical complexity. She uses her technical expertise to convey to listeners Bach's sense of spiritual enlightenment, paying particular homage to the music's lift. Weir's is a wonderful performance that puts a warm glow into this reviewer's soul. Again, her rhythms are enchanting and her tenderness sublime.
Chorale Partita – Bach composed four chorale partitas, each one taking a hymn tune and subjecting it to a series of variations of wide breadth. BWV 767 has eight variations in a pattern of increasing grandeur and richness of texture. The 1st Variation is an extended duet between the soprano and tenor voices; the rhetorical side of Bach's music is constantly interesting. Most rewarding is the 7th Variation where Bach's chromatic effects (pitches outside the prevailing key) create an eerie landscape contrasted with the ascension to spirituality conveyed by Bach's rising lines. Weir plays the 7th Variation with outstanding priority on its contrasts and gives us as poignant an interpretation as any on record. She's also exceptional in the other variations, except that her leaping bass in the 3rd Variation has too little projection to compete with and complement the other voices sufficiently.
Clavier-Übung III (German Organ Mass) – This is a major Bach work that lasts over 1½ hours and includes Manualiter Chorales, Pedaliter Chorales, the Four Duets, and the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552. As with Bach's other monumental works such as the Well Tempered Clavier, the German Organ Mass is a compendium of Bach's architectural styles and emotional themes. It's all here – inversion, stretto, canon, counterpoint, augmentation, diminution, etc. Further, the breadth of emotions takes us from the highest peaks of enlightenment and security to the most perverse aspects of the human condition.
It would take quite a few pages to give a full account of the work's history and construction, but I will offer a few items that I hope provide some illumination about the music. We have a series of chorales that Bach wrote in both manualiter and pedaliter form. The pedaliter chorales are often referred to as the ‘major’ chorales of the work; they are rich in texture, relatively severe, and very powerful/demonstrative pieces; of course, the pedals are used. The corresponding manualiter chorales, sometimes called the ‘small’ chorales, tend to be transparent and intimate with light textures, some playfulness, and a serenity not found in the pedaliter chorales. However, there still is plenty of bite in these small chorales, so don't expect a collection of only warm music.
The Four Duets, more familiar as standing on their own and played on harpsichord or piano, are hard to explain in the context of the entire work. Bach evidently added them just before the work was published, and his reasons for doing so remain a mystery. There is the line of thought that Bach must have considered the work slanted in too rich and powerful a manner and that including the Four Duets which are manualiter in form would equalize the matter. Actually, this explanation is the best I've heard and will accept until a better one surfaces. The Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 represents the ‘bookends’ of the work. As with most of Bach's music in this genre, BWV 552 is towering music of majesty and serious intentions.
As you can note from the heading, Gillian Weir gives an unusual sequencing of the German Organ Mass. Instead of playing a pedaliter chorale followed by its manualiter companion, Weir plays the manualiter chorales as a group on Disc 1 and the pedaliter chorales on Disc 2. Also, the Prelude and Fugue BWV 552 becomes a set of bookends only for the pedaliter chorales. Weir's justification for this sequence is that "In this way not only does one lessen the continual clashing of keys; even more importantly a quite distinct mood is created in each". I take issue with her approach in that it reduces the variety and contrasts inherent in the work. The manualiter chorales can be a fine respite from the power, severity, and grandeur of the pedaliter chorales. When played together, these powerful chorales can be a little overbearing depending on the style of the specific organist. Placing the Prelude BWV 552 in front of all the pedaliter chorales only exacerbates the potential problem. On the other hand, I should not make too much of this, because Weir is never overbearing.
Now to Weir's actual performances. I did have a concern that her basic approach to Bach might not be well suited to the pedaliter chorales and especially problematic for the Prelude & Fugue BWV 552. However, my concerns were entirely unfounded. Weir takes to the severe and thunderous routes splendidly. Whenever Bach's music needs to be ripped from the earth and soar to the heavens, Weir puts on her ‘power-pack’ as naturally as she conveys Bach's tender refrains.
Compelling in every piece of the German Organ Mass, Weir's reading of the pedaliter chorale BWV 687 is superior to all others. This is monolithic music of intense severity, and Weir dives into Bach's mighty double-fugue edifice delighting in the opportunity to trade blows. There aren't many rays of light in the piece, and Bach only offers them to us in tiny slivers. Still, Weir makes the most of them, allowing listeners a bit of respite from the grinding and severe nature of the music.
There hasn't been a wealth of Bach organ recordings made in recent years, and I have been hungry for a fine set of newly recorded performances. With Gillian Weir's new recording, my hunger is gone. While listening to her performances, I can't get the “Papa Bach” designation out of my mind. Weir gives us a Bach with outstretched arms waiting to envelop humankind in his security and enlightenment. All we have to do is step forward.” Don Satz
“A chance to hear two outstanding instruments played by a real master: It is difficult to think of a better tribute to the work of a gifted organ builder than these discs. Under the ministrations of one of the world's most highly regarded organists these two wonderful organs are generously displayed in music which ranks among the greatest even written for organ and in recordings of exceptional quality. Indeed Priory, which has long since shown itself to be a consistently high achiever in terms of recorded organ sound, has surpassed even itself here. The organs are recorded with clarity and depth, the acoustic differences between these two venues cleverly suppressed so that there is no significant shift of ambience as we move between Toronto and Colorado. By the time Gillian Weir has led us through all six of the Schübler Chorales we feel we have an intimate knowledge of the Deer Park Church's Phelps/Casavant, while the Partita O Gott, du frommer Gott serves a similar function for the rather more majestic Lawrence Phelps instrument at Fort Collins. Priory provides us with such lavish documentation (encompassing words from such diverse sources as Pablo Casals, Goethe, C.P.E. Bach, Helmut Walcha, Dame Gillian herself and the ever-meticulous David Gammie)... As for the playing itself, admirers of Gillian Weir's Bach playing will find here everything they could ask for, and more.” Marc Rochester, International Record Review, February 2004
“The playing is enchanting and effortless” Sydney Organ Journal, February 2004
Reflections From the Inside
I wanted to write a little review of this new volume. I'm not a real music critic; the real reviews will appear in magazines and journals in a few months as editors and commentators get a copy, listen, write and put their thoughts to press. Since I help with the web site, I can write my thoughts and post them right away, so I can cheat a little bit and get the first review out.
I received a copy of this new disc the other day in the mail. I was lucky to have one early and I use it for setting up the web site. A number of people have been very eager to get this disc for several reasons, one being it had been two years since the previous Organ Master Series Volume 2 from Hexham came out, so it had been awhile, and the other is its general significance to those of us who worked building organs with Larry and have been friends with Phelps and Weir for many years. One must also pause to thank those good friends who work hard behind the scenes, making these recordings available, and those parishioners, donors and organists who have kept a vibrant music culture alive in their churches.
Upon viewing the program, I was unsure of what to think. The Bach market is crowded in general, and his organ works have been recorded by many organists; some are fine albums. I was not very familiar with the Clavier-Übung; the Schübler chorales I knew, and the E-flat Prelude and Fugue- these are popular. Chorales and Pastorales? If one wants to show off an organ, shouldn't one fill it up with big Preludes and Fugues, or Toccatas and Fugues? Why these works?
As I began to listen, the answer quickly revealed itself: it's the polyphony, with all it's subtle beauty and intricacy. This is music. The extensive booklet tells much about Bach, what he wrote and why he wrote it. This music was written later in his life when his skills at weaving melodies into pictures were developed and mature. It was the apogee of his own art, or of any other composer, as history would tell. This is simply the best music to highlight the wonderful clarity and balance that Phelps worked so hard to put into these instruments. It is the kind of music that actually requires the balanced stops and divisions, where mechanical key action makes a difference. It brings to the forefront the result from years of effort in obsessing about details that some dismiss as unimportant.
The performance is magical too- Gillian Weir knows well the beauty and intricacy of this music; she's played on as many instruments as anyone, and from that base of experience chose these two organs. Her gifted interpretation takes notes and pipes, sprinkles them with rhythm and produces music that delights the ear and warms the heart.
If I had to sum up what this volume is, it is best said that it is truly a tri-fold testament to the mature genius of composer, builder, and performer Steve Thomas, November 2003
Priory Records(external link) PRCD 753 AB