There are few that would argue that the Muller organ of the Great Church of St Bavo in Haarlem is one of the finest in the world. Its monumental case takes the breath away and this is more than matched by its granduer and variety of sound. All the greats have travelled to play it Handel and the young Mozart later Liszt and Saint- Saens to name a few. All left searching for the right words to extoll its wonders. So the combination of this organ and and a organist of a proven pedigree combined with Telarcs famous recording standards should leave us with some of the sensations experienced by the the long list of those from a previous era. Let us see if this is the case.
There are no issues as to value time wise at 65 minutes. The programme is rather oddly layed out with four major works followed by four chorale preludes, they could have been inserted between the larger works though you can if you wish programme your player to do this.
The disc opens with Prelude and Fugue in E flat known as the St Anne. The opening and closing of the Clavier-Ubung but for which there is considerable evidence of Bach performing them as a pair. At 18 minutes I thought there may be issues as regards tempi (which others have noted) I expected to be knocked out of my seat by the opening but no the registration chosen is modest. The initial impression is of a rather thin and brittle sound and also a slightly distant balance. The speed is quite acceptable the playing clean and precise. The fugue opens at a measured pace on an even more modest set of stops, the second subject very lightly registered, tempi and registration increase as the subjects enter. Then its over the 18 minutes passing quickly but with little impression that the instrument is one of the wonders of the musical world.
Next is the 'Dorian' Toccata and Fugue not named because it is in the Dorian mode but that there is no flat in its key signature. Again the registration is light and to me top heavy and lacking in weight. The playing is fine but lacks the suggestion that the organist is revelling in the chance to play this organ. Its all too safe. The fugue is taken at a stately pace but somewhat peters out at the end.
The somber Fantasia and Fugue in C at last shows there is some heft in the bass but the manual registration chosen seems somewhat thin and reedy. Murray's somewhat cool and detached paying suits the mood of the piece. The fugue is much more like it, there is a bit more sparkle from both organist and organ. The last of the big works is the Prelude and Fugue in C major. The 9/8 prelude needs more bounce than given here. By now I think I think I have found the issue Murray is trying to be rather to literal in his choice of stops. It is all too 'small scale North German Baroque organ' in concept and this is a Dutch organ of some 60 plus stops, its glory is its chorus and reed stops crowned by ranks of mixtures. The fugue (and most of the other works ) appear to use little or none of these.
The four chorales that close the disc are much better with more flexibility in the playing. The sound also seems a lot cleaner and I wonder if these were not taped at another session.
This is all rather dissapointing to my ears. The sound is not up to Telarcs best I have always thought they are more at home in dryer acoustics. The playing is acceptable but seems to offer nothing much to say about the music. There are many other recordings such as those by Piet Kee on Chandos of Bach which do both composer and organ more justice. So unless you want these particular works it may be more worthwhile to seek these out.
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Those of us with a love for organ music have heard most of the pieces on this CD many times. I thought I knew them intimately, but I was still curious to hear a recording of them on the famous Müller organ which, after all, dates from the time when Bach was alive. However, after the first few measures already, I was dissappointed. Michael Murray is one of the greats, so why the slow tempo? It took a second listening to appreciate the pace. I am used to bombastic sounds that leave me breathless, but in this interpretation you can hear Bach, the harmonist, the brilliant tone smith and the diligent worker. You can practically see the complicated web of notes all around you before they culminate in the final chord. An interesting rendition!