Prom 47: Reformation Day 1 – Bach’s Little Organ Book past and present – Robert Quinney & William Whitehead at Royal Albert Hall organ

“Our Reformation Day celebrations begin with an organ recital by William Whitehead and Robert Quinney that has chorale preludes from Bach’s Orgelbüchlein at its heart. There are also premieres by Jonathan Dove, Cheryl-Frances Hoad and Daniel Saleeb.” [BBC Proms website]

Robert Quinney & William Whitehead (Royal Albert Hall organ)

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 20 August, 2017
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Organists Robert Quinney and William Whitehead perform chorale preludes published by Bach as part of his Orgelbüchlein alongside new works commissioned for William Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein Project, completing the series Bach left unfinished at his death, at the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCAlthough the religious revolution spawned in Europe exactly five-hundred years ago by Martin Luther’s challenge to the theology and practices of the Roman Catholic Church has come to be described in convenient shorthand as The Reformation, really there were several ecclesiastical reformations. This trinity of events on this single Proms day celebrating that anniversary largely concentrated upon the German, Lutheran one – unsurprisingly, as that bore the richest fruit, musically – rather than the Calvinist or Anglican varieties. Common to many Protestant traditions, however, remains the practice of congregational singing of hymns or chorales in the vernacular, inspired by the examples Luther himself wrote, and which formed a major source of inspiration for composers in the centuries afterwards.

At the centrepiece of this first of three “Reformation Day” Proms was J. S. Bach’s collection of organ Preludes based upon such Lutheran Chorales which he assembled as his Orgelbüchlein between 1717 and 1723. As he only completed forty-six of an intended cycle of many more pieces, William Whitehead has been curating an ongoing project to fill out the collection with commissions from contemporary composers, and the core of this Prom offered a vignette of that.

Common to his performances of the Preludes selected here, Whitehead demonstrated an ability to comprehend each piece as a whole, despite disparate textures and imitative sequences. The quiet, intimate expression sustained in ‘Ich ruf zu dir’, underpinned by the gentle throb of the Chorale in the pedals, contrasted tellingly with the grand sweep of ‘Christus der uns selig macht’, with its foreboding rendition of the hymn melody in the pedals and with textures remaining clear despite Bach’s intricate contrapuntal scheme.

Marking 500 years since the Reformation, organist William Whitehead brings his Orgelbüchlein Project to the Royal Albert Hall, at the BBC Proms 2017Photograph: Chris Christodoulou / BBCWhitehead skilfully displayed a different sort of control and attention in the growing pace and volume of Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Prelude on that most famous of Reformation chorales, ‘Ein feste Burg’, which swelled with consistent momentum as the music came into clearer focus. The dynamic rhythmic figurations symbolise air and water (the flapping wings of the Holy Spirit as a dove, and the River Jordan respectively) in Jonathan Dove’s setting of ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’, and with its brilliant colours is ultimately more redolent of a toccata by Widor or Vierne. Daniel Saleeb’s new Prelude (these three Preludes were premieres), and an earlier Toccata, on ‘Erhalt uns, Herr, bei deinem Wort’, contrasts the serene playfulness of the hymn with its stated violent sentiments to “fend off the murd’rous Papists and Turks”. Whitehead brought out the irony of that with the ghostly and curdled registrations in the middle of the piece, and then with more straightforward fury blurted out from the organ in the Toccata.

The remainder of the recital exemplified the influence of the Chorale, and of Bach in particular. In Schumann’s Fourth Fugue on B-A-C-H, Whitehead traced another thrilling accumulation of tension and sonorous splendour, akin to the effect Max Reger would later achieve in similar compositions. Robert Quinney shared some of the honours with his majestic contribution to Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonata No.3 (based on ‘Aus tiefer Not’) with a stately, ceremonial account of the first movement’s march-like section, after which the fugato sounded deliberately dry and prosaic.

Just as Bach framed the score of his other noted collection of Chorale Preludes – the Clavierübung – with his great Prelude and Fugue in E-flat (dubbed the ‘St Anne’ from the Fugue’s subject’s coincidental similarity with an English hymn tune by William Croft), so this recital was bookended by Quinney’s bold and urgent account of the two parts of that work, though the Prelude was a little uncertain in its flourishes and ornaments. Prefacing the concluding Fugue, both organists came together at the console for a charming rendition of Samuel Wesley’s Introduction to the Grand Fugue in E-flat by Sebastian Bach (1812, the Fugue being the one that followed here), a work stemming from the English tradition of organ duets to compensate for the lack of pedal boards on instruments in the country at that time. The phrases were clearly and efficiently passed back and forth, and despite the modest pretensions of the piece, it served as a suitable manifestation of the collaboration between Whitehead and Quinney in this engaging compilation.

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