The Musical Offering, BWV1079
Catherine Ennis (organ)
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 27 November, 2006
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
In 1747 – three years before his death – Bach visited the court of Frederick the Great of Prussia to see his son, Carl Philip Emmanuel, who was harpsichordist there. The story goes that, on learning of J.S. Bach’s presence, the King arranged a meeting and played a theme that he himself had composed. There and then, the composer improvised a fugue on the King’s composition, apparently on a fortepiano – an instrument Bach is known to have disliked. He subsequently presented this ‘offering’ to the King, comprising fugues, canons, ricercars and a four-movement sonata. Whether it was performed and with what forces is unknown; the specially produced ‘presentation’ copy being unclear in this regard.
There have, subsequently, been various performing ‘versions’ made, ranging from solo instruments through to chamber and larger ensembles. Whatever instrumental sonority is chosen, the music itself remains quite fascinating – not least for the strict application of ‘techniques’ which never obscure purely musical considerations. In spite of very intricate ‘methods’ being deployed, the music is, by turns and in essence, expressive, lively, reflective and often very beautiful.
Catherine Ennis elected to play a direct transcription (i.e. no alteration to the actual notes) by Jean Guillou (born 1930). I am not sure for what occasion or circumstances Guillou (whose name was incorrectly spelt in the otherwise interesting and unusually informative programme notes) made this version, but it would almost certainly have been for a fiery French organ, rather than the modest Queen Elizabeth Hall instrument.
And a lack of colour and variety of sonority was one of the chief drawbacks of this performance. One is loath to criticise an artist for their execution of music which is hugely demanding (in this instance, perhaps, demonstrating that Bach had more than one instrumentalist in mind) but the fact remains that this was not a ‘comfortable’ evening for either player or audience.
There were numerous slips which, on an organ, seem to lead inevitably to others, and much banging and clattering of stops both between and within movements. It looked as if Ennis could have used the services of an assistant with regard to the latter – a practice quite common on the Continent. A further drawback – not the organist’s fault – was the lack of a real bass sound, the instrument in question being deficient in this regard, so fugal or canonic entries did not register with the weight which was surely intended. Stylistically, there were too many agogic pauses, which prevented the sense of a strong, regular pulse being conveyed – an essential ingredient in Bach.
This is, sadly, a characteristic of contemporary thinking as to how ‘early’ organ music should be played. But Bach needs a solid metrical grounding – unfortunately, it did not receive it on this occasion. To be sure, there were some delightful sounds in some of the shorter canons, with the ‘flute’ tone being especially apt. But I didn’t sense that, ultimately, this music is really suited to the organ – not to this instrument at any rate. Guillou devised his own sequence for the thirteen pieces which comprise Bach’s ‘Musical Offering’, concluding with the ‘Ricercar à 6’. With the somewhat harsh and squealing registration Catherine Ennis chose, I found myself hankering after Webern’s marvellous orchestral transcription of this piece, and rather regretting he had not transcribed the whole of this remarkable and absorbing work.