The term genius is often overused in our modern world where exceptional talent can be confused with something far higher. However, there are no blurred lines in the case of Johann Sebastian Bach who remains, unquestionably, one of the greatest composers of all time.
This bland and rather simplistic statement is perhaps best complimented by the observation that countless experts have spent decades marvelling at the near mathematical precision behind his compositional style.
Bach was a supreme craftsman whose incomparable genius is revealed through his extraordinarily complex compositions. He was a master of counterpoint who possessed a musical mind so complex that he was able to weave multiple lines within his work. These are just a few humble observations of the genius that radiates from the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Today I would like to bring to your attention two releases from the MSR Classics label that pay homage to the man and his music.
J.S Bach – Goldberg Variations (MS 1324) – Ronald Hawkins
Widely accepted as one of the finest examples of the aforementioned genius the Goldberg Variations were originally commissioned by Baron von Keyserling and were named after the harpsichord player who would play them.
On this record internationally renowned pianist, American Ronald Hawkins, delivers a sublime and delightful recording that pays all due homage to the complexity of the work, whilst maintaining its uplifting and near spiritual beauty. The Variations, is exactly that, a vast variety of atmosphere and styles. However, the whole is built upon a firm foundation of underlying themes that recur throughout.
For this recording, as opposed to his live concert renditions, Ronald Hawkins has chosen to play only those repeats for which Bach wrote alternative endings (numbers 2, 4, 6, 16, and 25). The Variations were originally written for harpsichord, with Bach specifying on the score for each piece which were for one or two manuals.
The album notes explain that by playing them on the piano, a one manual instrument, Ronald Hawkins has had to overcome the challenge of numerous hand crossings and redistribution of notes which often result in the same note being played in both hands.
This very fact perfectly illustrates the complex musical genius that was Bach and the mastery of the instrument by the artist Ronald Hawkins present on this delightful recording.
The Variations end with a return to the opening "Aria" thus completing a symmetrical sense of closure within a cyclical form. The result is a highly satisfying and musically logical conclusion that explores the intensely emotional (number 25), the vibrant (number 29), and the dramatic (number 16), amid a myriad of texture, style, mood, and construction.
This is a truly masterful work which is expertly performed and recorded on this highly inspirational recording.
J.S.Bach – The Thrill Of The Chase (Volume 2) – Florence Mustric (MS 1271)
The word 'fugue' derives from the Italian 'fugara', which means to chase. Fugue means, in simplistic terms, a piece where two or more individual melodies are interwoven. There was no greater exponent of this than Bach.
Florence Mustric has a Master of Music in organ performance from the Cleveland Institute of Music and a bachelor of arts from Oberlin. She has four previous MSR releases to her name including performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, and selected works by Schumann, Franck, Dupre, and Barber, among others.
For this recording she plays the Rudolph von Beckerath organ from the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Cleveland. Built in 1956 in Germany it was the first large mechanical-action organ in North America in modern times.
The album notes explain that “The Thrill Of The Chase lies in hearing a superb fugue and in discovering what the composer, especially J.S. Bach the undisputed master, conjures up in the confines of the most disciplined of musical forms.”
They go on to explain that this collection represents a “choice of sounds, ranks of pipes, and manual keyboards.” Further stating that, “Bach rarely gave specifications, so we cannot say with certainty how he played his music." Florence Mustric explains her interpretation as being based on, “the sparing use of full volume, Baroque terrace dynamics, and the influence of Helmut Walcha."
For the album she has selected, "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (s. 565)", written early in Bach’s life, "Prelude and Fugue in D Major (s. 532)", "Passacaglia in C Minor(s. 582)", "Toccata, Adagio And Fugue in C Major (s.564)", and "Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor (s. 542)".
The latter fugue is considered by many to be perhaps Bach’s finest and represents a rich, multi-layered tapestry of interwoven complexity. Florence’s performance of this and "Passacaglia in C Minor" are of exceptionally high quality.
This album fully achieves Florence Mustric’s aims, as stated on the sleeve notes, to “showcase the fabulous qualities of the instrument in some of the most beautiful and imaginative music composed over the past three centuries.”
Both releases are available amongst a wealth of other quality choices by visiting the MSR Classic official website.