The Chorale Partitas – that is to say, sets of variations (each section called a ‘partita’ in its own right, except for BWV768) upon a given chorale melody – are among the least well-known aspects of J. S. Bach’s extensive output for the organ, perhaps because they lack the variety of the Trio Sonatas, or the more concentrated flair of the Preludes or Toccatas and Fugues which can be programmed easily in concerts or as voluntaries for church services. The Partitas (which also have nothing to do with the sequences of dances Bach also grouped under that title for keyboard or violin) demand closer and steadier attention to their ingenious working out of the austere chorale melodies they are built upon.
Stephen Farr picks a suitable instrument in the Aubertin organ from 2015, installed in a private residence. Its soft flute registers predominate in these performances, evoking the more private, devotional world of these works, particularly with the comparatively compact acoustic of the venue. That said, some sense of distance, and therefore greater spaciousness, is created in BWV767’s Partita IV, whilst the Flute on the Recit division lends that work’s chromatic Partita VIII an otherworldly character. Different colours come to the fore on this instrument elsewhere to create more variety than Bach may ever have intended or been used to, but they are like the delicate shades of a watercolour or pastel drawing rather than a full-bodied oil-painting, integrating seamlessly with those principal flute stops. These registrations ripple and murmur, particularly in BWV766 and BWV768. But sometimes that causes the textures to sound more like a musical mumble, as in Variations V and VII of BWV768 where the selected registrations prevent the filigree decorations around the slower-moving lines to stand out more clearly; or the lower two parts underneath the volatile semiquavers of BWV766’s Partita IV speak too softly and need greater prominence.
Sometimes Farr seems to cultivate a deliberate strategy of holding back in terms of timbre for some variations, or even whole sequences, so that contrasts can be made more boldly, such as the irruption of colour with the Nazard stop in Partita VI of BWV767 and the Voix Humaine in the Pedal; the brighter texture of BWV768’s Variation VIII cuts through the murk of the preceding sections; and the little twittering motif of Partita VIII within BWV770 stands out playfully with its Flageolet registration.
Occasional theatrical contrasts are also well-realised when some variations call for passages or terse motifs to be passed between two manuals (as implied by the piano and forte markings) such as in BWV767’s Partita XI, which is comparatively rare in Bach’s other organ music, but sounds more like the effects which a voluntary by Handel or John Stanley might demand. Fuller registrations are deployed in the climactic movements to underline the structural coherence of the performance of each work here as Farr aims at, and achieves, a steady, focussed course in each Partita set, rather than affectation or show for their own sake.
It is not known exactly for what occasions these works were composed, nor that they were even written as a connected group, but they seem to be early works, in which Bach was developing his talent for working out the harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities of the Lutheran heritage of chorale melodies, which would bear fruit in his subsequent collections of Chorale Preludes. Farr does a valuable service in enabling the listener to compare these unusual and rewarding works, but it is not clear why he omits the rather later set of canonic variations on Vom Himmel hoch, BWV769 – there is certainly room – unless it is that, as an exercise in pure contrapuntal technique like the contemporaneous Art of Fugue and Musical Offering, it is deemed to constitute a different type of work altogether. But it seems a pity not to draw together the threads between similar aspects of the composer’s output at the two ends of his creative life, just as in the B-minor Mass he accomplished the same with respect to his vocal and choral religious music. Otherwise this useful release draws attention to some fascinating compositions.