Composer: Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Works: Fantasy in G Major, BWV 527 / Canzona in D Minor, BWV 588 / "Gigue" Fugue in G Major, BWV 577 / Nunn komm' der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 / Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, BWV 538 / Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr, BWV 663 / Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV 658 / Prelude in Eb Major, BWV 552 / Trio in C Minor, BWV 585 / Fugue in Eb Major, BWV 552
Performer: Esther Sialm (organ)
DEAR MS. SIALM,
DO YOU NOTICE HOW THIS OPEN LETTER IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS? DOESN'T IT GIVE THE IMPRESSION THAT I'M SHOUTING AT YOU? THAT'S KIND OF HOW I FEEL WHEN YOU PLAY AN ENTIRE PIECE WITH ALL THE STOPS PULLED OUT AND NO TEXTURAL VARIETY WHATSOEVER. LIKE IN THE D MINOR TOCCATA: BACH SPECIFICALLY INDICATES THAT YOU SHOULD SWITCH FROM ONE MANUAL TO ANOTHER. THAT'S A PERFECT OPPORTUNITY TO INTRODUCE A NEW TIMBRE -- AND IN FACT YOU DO JUST THAT IN THE "GIGUE" FUGUE, WHERE I'M PRETTY SURE BACH DOESN'T TELL YOU TO. SO WHAT GIVES?
OK, snark aside, this really is a pretty mediocre recording. Some of that is really Bach's fault: the G Minor Fantasy and D Minor Fugue in particular seem to cyle around the same harmonies endlessly. I'm not sure why Sialm picked these particular pieces for the CD -- they're such a random selection, with a few chorales, a few fugues, a trio, a fantasy and so on, that they don't seem to be part of any systematic "complete works" project -- but she certainly could have chosen better ones. Even given that, though, I'm not at all a fan of her playing. Some pieces that sound potentially interesting, like the Eb Major Prelude with its unexpected shifts to the parallel minor, dissolve into undifferentiated blobs due to her choice of stops. And her rendition of the "Gigue" Fugue is downright awful -- way, way too slow, totally lacking in the dance-like energy a gigue is supposed to have. The timbral changes I mentioned above are pretty much the only good thing about it.
That said, there are a few pieces where she scales things back, and they're quite a bit better than the rest. In two of the chorales, "Allein Gott in der Höh' sei Ehr" and "Von Gott will ich nicht lassen," she plays most of the lines with a smooth, dark timbre but one of them with a sharp, nasal, triangular timbre. It sounds more like a synthesizer than an organ (and I think I could probably recreate it using Reason), and in the latter piece in particular it brings out a really nice chromatic line.
In the other chorale, "Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland," she does something that I actually think is wonderful. Again she uses a bright, nasal-sounding setting for one of the voices (though this one isn't quite as electronic-sounding as the others), and this time she uses it for a voice that's only present some of the time, while she uses the smooth, dark setting for the voices that are always present. The result is that the dark timbre becomes the background and the bright one becomes the foreground, and to my ears they separate as if in three-dimensional space, a shiny yellow curved pipe hovering in front of mahogany panels. It reminds me of The Unanswered Question, maybe the paradigm of multilayered music in the twentieth century. I didn't think I'd ever wind up saying that about a Bach piece.
Still, most of the CD is pretty hard to get through. I'm withholding judgment about the instrument itself until I get to the next one. It's played by E. Power Biggs, who not only has the best porn-star name of any musician ever, but is also a major world-class organist. I remember liking his playing when I was 12; we'll see what I think now.