Margaret Phillips – Bach’s Leipzig Organ Chorales

Leipzig Chorale Preludes

A selection of preludes from the collection known as “The Eighteen”:

Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, BWV651
Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele, BWV654
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend, BWV655
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV661
An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV653
Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, BWV658
Nun danket alle Gott, BWV657
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her, BWV662
BWV663 Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, BWV665

Margaret Phillips (organ)

Members of the London Oratory Choir [Patrick Russell, director]

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: 25 March, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

What might have appeared to have been a rather arid exercise in theory proved to be a very satisfying experience in actuality, forming a lunchtime recital of about an hour’s duration enjoyed by a large, appreciative and – that rare quality – quiet audience.

Margaret Phillips had made a judicious selection from J.S. Bach’s Leipzig chorale preludes, each aptly contrasted. These were preceded by the original chorale melodies sung by four men from the London Oratory Choir. Whilst it was instructive to be reminded of these tunes, they would not have been sung in this manner in Bach’s time. Here unaccompanied, in unison, with occasional solos and delivered somewhat effetely, Bach would have accompanied a large congregation, no doubt providing his own distinctive harmonies. The chorale melodies themselves are not consistently interesting and it is remarkable how Bach took these penny-plain inventions and transformed them.

The Queen Elizabeth Hall organ is heard infrequently as a solo instrument. With sixteen speaking stops, it is not large, but Margaret Phillips produced a striking variety of sonority, with appropriate registration for each prelude. Balance between manuals and pedals was exemplary. If just occasionally one wanted – or needed – a more sonorous bass line, this was not a deficiency of the playing.

These pieces provide numerous challenges for the organist. Some take the form of trio-sonata movements, with all the inherent co-ordination difficulties. Margaret Phillips was virtually blemish-free throughout, with very occasional slips barely noticeable. Needless to say, Bach would not have envisaged these preludes being played in a sequence of this kind – nor, indeed, in the very dry acoustic of this particular hall. But Phillips’s assurance and sense of communication nullified any sense of an ‘artificial’ kind of presentation – undoubtedly, these preludes would have been used in a liturgical context, more than likely following the congregation’s singing of the chorales.

Phillips’s choices were framed by two powerful pieces – “Komm, Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott” and “Jesus Christus, unser Heiland” respectively – between which were more reflective preludes. The gentle flutes of “Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele” seemed ideal for this music, and it was good to hear two of the three preludes on “Allein Gott in der Höh sei Her” – both very different.

All in all, this was a gratifying recital, and a welcome chance to experience these miniature masterpieces via sympathetic performances.

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