Alla Francese...?

This third album of the works for organ by Johann Sebastian Bach is different compared to the first two due to the choice of instrument. The program chosen focuses on the French influences in the 18th century (in the writings of Bach). The "Pièce d'orgue", G Maj, BWV 572, was the reason to choose the organ of the Saint Remy Basilica in Reims (F). This large organ was built by Bertrand Cattiaux in 2000 and is equipped with a "ravalement", an extension downwards to the A below the low C. This instrument is one of the few modern constructions that is provided with this extension.

Bach knew the French style very well, especially the compositions of Nicolas De Grigny, whose works he copied meticulously. The Fantasie a 5 (which means 5 voices) in C minor is a very good example of this because it was composed as a five-voiced fugue à la De Grigny. In addition to French influences, which are the most present on this recording, we also find Italian (e.g. in the fugue made on a theme by Legrenzi) and of course also the North German "Stylus Fantasticus" of his master Dietrich Buxtehude.

Praeludium und Fuge, D-Dur, BWV 532

Here you will hear one of Bach's most brilliant and virtuoso pages, highly influenced by the masters of the north, but also by the French rhythm. It starts with an introduction with large scales, both in pedal and in manual (just like a Toccata would start at Buxtehude). Then there is a second part, more massive, with broken chords, that can evoke an atmosphere of resurrection.

The large central part is very vocal and lyrical, very dancing, an allabreve. (it can be placed in direct relation with the large central part of the "Pièce d'orgue", BWV 572) This part is very polyphonic, in contrast to the beginning.

The last part is again in the toccata style, more free, ending with double pedal in a relatively dramatic spirit.

The fugue is built on one of the longest themes that Bach has ever written in his organ works. We chose to display the various motifs in different registrations in order to emphasize the violinistic, orchestral and spatial writing style. A big crescendo leads us to a great brilliant pedal solo at the end of the work that closes this diptych in a lively way.


Herzlich tut mich verlangen, BWV 727

This passion choral represents a summum of the expressiveness in choral art with Bach. The key of B minor (representing suffering and death) is not simply chosen. The effect of this choral prelude is special in its symmetry, starting and ending with a dominant chord. Perhaps it is an intention to tell the listener that death is only a transition to something else. The conciseness of the piece is here compensated by a wonderful density of harmonic and contrapuntal tensions, like a big breath that seems to fail and then gradually disappears at the last chord.

Fantaisia, c-Moll, BWV 542

A unique fantasy of Bach written in 5 voices followed by an unfinished fugue of 27 measures. Typically French, this fantasy is played just like a five-voice fugue by Nicolas de Grigny with two voices on the Cornet, two on the Cromorne and a Flûte in the pedal.


Fuge, c-Moll, BWV 574

We decided to continue the previous fantasy with the fugue in C minor composed during his youth on a theme by Giovanni Legrenzi. Indeed, despite the differences in style, the vocal and contrapuntal tone subtly takes over the lyricism and depth of fantasy.

This "didactic" fugue, very interestingly constructed, emphasizes the Italian influences of Bach.

It is a double fugue (fugue with two different themes) where the subjects come together in a new exhibition of the second part of the fugue. And then, very unusually, the work ends with an almost improvised postlude, resulting in a complete break with the previous contrapuntal strictness.

Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV 730

Like many others from the Kirnberger and Neumeister collections, this choral prelude was destined for Sunday service. The choral is simply harmonized here, but with a certain counterpoint to concentrate the composition.


Liebster Jesu, wir sind hier, BWV 731

As a follow-up to the previous choral prelude, this "decorated" version of the choral unfolds in a more lyrical and expressive way thanks to its more daring character in decorating the melody (as with a cantata). We find this orchestral style pertinently present with Bach.

Pièce d'orgue, G-Dur, BWV 572

This gigantic fantasy is made up of three parts, contrasting in their contrapuntal elaboration.

The first part, light, very violinistic, shows a series of broken chords that lead a very progressive harmonic line ending at an exciting organ point. This lets us enter the large central fresco, dense, complex and rich, based on a pedal in long value such as a cantus firmus used in French classical music in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This large central fresco also ends with a very tense and brutal chord, to enable us to enter the final part, a kind of musical dream in which the scales make us forget ​​time and structure.


Praeludium und Fuge, C-Dur, BWV 547

This complex and powerful piece is said to have been composed during his years in Leipzig. The prelude, grandioso, very orchestral is written in an atypical measure of 9/8, very dancing. It is also likely that this is the very last prelude and fugue for organ that Bach has written. Nicknamed "Christmas Prelude" there are similarities with the cantata 65 "Sie became aus Saba alle kommen" from 1724. The prelude is both a synthesis and the perfect example of Bach's concert style. There are of course the influences of Vivaldi but also those of Johann Jakob Froberger in the treatment of motifs in canon. At the end, the unusual key of F minor is used interrupted by large breaks that we will also find in the fugue. The fugue reflects the maturity of Bach: a simple theme with a slow and progressive development that reminds us of the fugues from the second book of the "Wohltemperierte Klavier" and the large vocal fugue from his mass in B minor. The theme appears about fifty times in the work (which is extremely rare); this is due to its enormous potential for development. The pedal appears only at the end of the piece and adds even more solemnity and depth. The polyphony is incredibly dense and complex, amplified to a sudden break by exciting chords that end in five voices on a wonderfully calming tonic pedal in C Major.

Fuge, G-Dur, BWV 577

Youthful cheerfulness, the theme of this fugue is based on the direct fifth relationships, typical in the style of Buxtehude. The fugue is commonly called "Fugue alla Giga" because of its dancing ternary character.

Among the so-called "small" isolated fugues, this fugue is an example of mastery of style and form structure. Through the use of reeds, it acquires a particularly lively and brilliant character.


Toccata, Adagio und Fuge, C-Dur, BWV 564

As with many other compositions, the manuscript of this work has been lost. We only know it through copies that were probably copied by students (just like the opening piece of this CD the prelude in D Major). This Toccata is influenced by the North German tradition. The beginning is based on the virtuoso improvisations from the era of the masters of the Stylus Fantasticus, both in the manual and in the pedal (here we see that in this tradition the virtuosity of the pedal playing was similar to that of the manual playing). The result is a swirling and lively concerto section, treated in a very decorative way, with rising and falling motifs. The adagio is a real aria for a soloist. Very decorated, it gently distills the expressiveness that can be found in the great slow movements of that time, or even in some melodies from the obligatory solo cantatas. It breaks down abruptly into what one might see as a Froberger or Frescobaldi meditation from their Toccatas per l'elevazione. As a magical moment, timeless, it gradually sinks into a soft chord of C Major. The very melodically and simply fugue symbolizes the virtuosity of a stringed instrument. Light and swirling, it is built on a theme that consists of only 4 (different) notes. There are similarities with the toccata. The structure of a "concerto" is now fully present. After a rigorous exhibition, the central part with two and later three voices becomes more blurred as intended by he composer. The fugue ends brilliantly as a symmetry of the beginning of the toccata with great falling virtuoso lines.

Jean-Luc Thellin