This recording signals the launch of a new complete recording of Johann Sebastian Bach's organ works. Since Helmut Walcha’s first groundbreaking German complete recording, begun in 1947, it is not only the image of Bach that has undergone a huge change, but also the awareness of the "right" instruments and the stylistically appropriate interpretation. And it is not only the historical instruments on which Helmut Walcha once tackled his Bach integrale that have now been professionally restored, but also countless other organs from the era of the composer – as important documents of historical performance practice. In terms of authenticity, the organ is undoubtedly privileged compared to all other instruments because it has not only survived through the centuries – as an advertising slogan once said – but has also, generally speaking, supplied the historical and authentic space: the acoustic ambience of what is termed the "original sound".
Against this background, it is understandable that later complete recordings were ever more purposefully made in those places where the composer worked – in Naumburg, Freiberg, Grauhof or Störmthal – in order to ensure the greatest possible authenticity as regards sound. Be it organs built by Trost, Silbermann, Trautmann or Hildebrandt: the fascination alone of hearing Bach's organ works ring out on the instruments which the composer himself played or personally inspected as an organ expert is alluring, and fits perfectly into our age of seeking "correctness" in all things.
The "Opus Bach" project, however, deliberately takes a different path. For as inspiring as it may be to interpret Bach's music under quasi-historical conditions, such an approach neglects to some extent the innovator and the genius concerned with every kind of progress, which Bach undoubtedly was: a musician who always participated in the latest developments, especially in the field of instrument building. Think only of the "Well-Tempered Clavier", with which Bach became the first person ever to pay a composer’s tribute to the newly introduced equal temperament. In the same way, he took a lively interest in the development of the fortepiano and was also involved in furthering modern playing techniques, such as the thumb-under technique or the virtuoso use of the organ pedal. Against this backdrop, the use of a modern organ seems entirely legitimate; an instrument which in the best sense deserves the title "universal organ" because it is – unlike the above-mentioned historical instruments – suitable for the interpretation of many styles, from Baroque to German Romanticism and French symphonic organ music, right through to the musical present.
In 2011, the Rieger Orgelbau GmbH elaborately reorganized the predecessor organ and added a "German swell". The present Rieger organ of the church of St. Michael in Munich with its 75 stops, distributed over 4 manuals and pedal, is a fascinating instrument, also for interpreting Bach. In addition to clearly defining principal stops, aliquot mixtures and characteristic reed pipes, it has those "mild" and sensitive timbres which are also proven to have been of great importance to Bach in performing his music.
There is also a pragmatic aspect: Peter Kofler has been the incumbent organist at the Jesuit Church of St. Michael since 2008, and is therefore very well acquainted with "his" organ and the acoustic characteristics of this imposing example of Renaissance architecture based on the Roman model. And so, significantly, the impetus for this project came from one of his many organ recitals, in which he played almost exactly the programme presented here in Volume 1: Felix Mendelssohn's Leipzig Bach recital of 6 August 1840. This concert, which Mendelssohn performed in the Church of St. Thomas, was the first of a total of three events to precede the unveiling of the monument he initiated for Bach, the “splendid old fellow” (Mendelssohn). The second was the legendary revival of Bach’s "St. Matthew Passion" in the Church of St. Thomas on 4 April 1841.
This Bach-Mendelssohn reference as episode 1 of an "Opus Bach", which will run for several years, at the same time marks the planned structure of the project: while previous complete recordings were either categorized according to forms such as "preludes and fugues", "toccatas", "trio sonatas", "chorale works" etc., the current project follows the idea of self-contained organ programmes with the appropriate musical dramaturgy. For this reason, instead of the "Passacaglia in C minor" (BWV 582), played by Mendelssohn in his day, the partita "Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig" (BWV 768) has been incorporated – as a conscious change of mood between plenum pieces such as "Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major" (BWV 552), "Prelude and Fugue in A minor" (BWV 543) and the famous "Toccata in D minor" (BWV 565).
Putting the modern Rieger organ at the heart of this ambitious Bach project is not to ignore the fact that the proper historical view of Bach's music is the key concern for the performer: extensive research of sources and the experience of dealing with precepts of historical instruments as well as the knowledge of the immensely important Baroque rhetoric is the starting point for organist and harpsichordist Peter Kofler’s Bach interpretation.
What is more, one of the fundamental starting points for this "Opus Bach" is the aspect regarding recording technology: the issue of the greatest possible authenticity of sound. However autonomously the musician Peter Kofler acts in the live concert, the sound engineer nevertheless remains an important partner for a recording project such as this one. This is not only because he represents the future listener during the recording, and functions as an incorruptible, sometimes even uncomfortable counterpart for the player, but also because he has a decisive influence on the degree of clarity and tonal immediacy in which Bach's music finally reaches living rooms and playback devices. And ultimately, one of the arguments for a further complete recording of Bach is also present in this consideration of the “philosophy of sound”: for beyond the artistic interpretation, the possibilities of what is technically feasible today should also be exhausted. The starting point in all of this was the consideration that an organ is first and foremost voiced for the listener inside the church.
It is with such considerations in mind that sound engineer Martin Fischer, with his extensive experience in organ recordings, decided to create a specially designed surround microphone system using a sampling rate four times higher (192 kHz) than that used for a CD – resulting in a resolution of the digitally converted audio signal that is as detailed as possible. The best possible playback standard currently available is the 10-channel Auro 3D, the further development of earlier surround formats such as 5.1., 7.1. or 2 + 2 + 2. Auro 3D not only represents the natural propagation times of sound in the horizontal direction (front-rear-side) but also the acoustic vertical (room height). This is especially important for providing the most authentic experience of a recording of organ music. In order to make the Bach project accessible to as many listeners as possible, an internet platform has been set up specifically for the various audio formats: from high-resolution formats to the widely used mp3. It is hoped that in this way, Johann Sebastian Bach's magnificent organ work will reach even more people and herald the uniqueness of that genius who signed many of his compositions with the words "Soli Deo Gloria": glory to God alone.
Matthias Keller (Translation: Laura Park)