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The first five-disc set of Peter Kofler’s projected complete Bach organ works series claims to make use of an innovative recording technology with which ‘the space of the church interior is authentically reproduced not only in its horizontal dimensions, but also in its vertical acoustics, its spatial height’. Usually sceptical of such extravagant claims, I have to say this really is a truly remarkable sound. Not well acquainted with the acoustic interior of the Jesuit church of St Michael in Munich, I cannot say how real the sound is, but it certainly envelops the playing with a wonderfully atmospheric aural backdrop, which in most cases enhances the music.
In most cases; but not all. A very brisk opening movement of the Sonata BWV529 is obscured by the acoustic wash, while the very opening of the D minor Concerto after Vivaldi (BWV596) gets quite lost in the swirling clouds of atmosphere. But the sheer sonic splendour of the A major Prelude and Fugue (BWV536) is riveting, the antiphonal effects in the last partita of O Gott, du frommer Gott (BWV767) are startlingly vivid, as are the solo/tutti contrasts in the C major Concerto (BWV594), and while there may be some reservations about Peter Kofler’s interpretative approach to the ubiquitous BWV565 Toccata and Fugue, there is no arguing about the spectacularly vivid sound.
On the whole, Kofler’s performances find an ideal balance between stylistic integrity and interpretative individuality, and there is little here which is going to cause offence to even the most hardened Bach specialist. At the same time, enhanced by that glorious recorded sound, Kofler’s playing has a real sense of communication, portraying these works with conviction and enthusiasm supported by a splendidly robust and fluent technique.
The booklet essay draws attention to Helmut Walcha’s groundbreaking recordings of Bach (on Archiv) and suggests that much has changed in the world of Bach organ music interpretation over the intervening 60 years. That is true; but while Kofler’s own musical pedigree (born and studied in Bolzano and Munich before being appointed organist of the
church in which these recordings were made) might not immediately suggest a connection with Walcha, in the sheer musicality of the playing and the instinctive understanding of registration, his approach is not a million miles away either. Rather, his playing is more in the nature of reinvigorating a long and hallowed tradition of Bach-playing than in reinventing it.
Any complete Bach organ music survey should grab attention with the big preludes, toccatas and fugues, and demonstrate great technical virtuosity in the flexibility of the trio sonatas. This new release is certainly way up with the frontrunners in those areas; a quick sample of both the E minor and E flat Preludes and Fugues (BWV548 and 552) provides ample evidence. But it is in the choralebased works that the wheat is so often separated from the chaff. Like MarieClaire Alain (on Erato), who could elevate even the humblest chorale prelude through imaginative registration, Kofler uses the full resources of this glorious 75-stop 2011 Rieger intelligently and sensitively. It would have been interesting to have his registrations included in the booklet, but suffice it to say he seems to have found just the right sound for each chorale prelude and treats each one as a delightful gem in its own right. Perhaps Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV660) seems a touch turgid, and the Canonic Variations (BWV769) do not quite come alive, but listening to Wachet auf (BWV645) so vividly shot through with the spirit of dance is an exhilarating experience, while Kofler’s bubbly, lifeenhancing performance of Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV717) is pure joy.
There is a certain thematic basis to each disc. The first replicates mostly the programme of Mendelssohn’s famous Bach recital given in Leipzig in 1840; the second has an Advent/Christmas theme; while the remaining three discs revisit programmes Kofler devised for live performances elsewhere. Beyond that, each presents as logical a cross-section of Bach’s organ output as anyone could want, and opens up great possibilities in displaying the rich resources of this splendid instrument.
All in all, from the evidence of these first five discs, this is going to be a highly recommendable recorded survey of Bach’s complete organ works. The playing is very fine indeed, the organ as close to the ideal as it is possible for a modern organ to be, and the recorded sound genuinely awe-inspiring.
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