Music is the Art of Feeling No 2 - Powerful Bach

I sometimes wonder where the Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582 fits in the collection of Bach's works: where did it come from, why is it such a powerfully emotional piece? It seems neither to be ceremonial or intimate and it sits outside the forms and norms for either instrument or setting.  It seems very much like his other organ music but in some way, in it's deeper sensibility, it is remote from those works made for the Church. It goes beyond the organ console of a religious rite in a Protestant Church in Northern Europe to a place nearer to the struggles of Beethoven, Wagner, Brahms and even some later composers?

My feeling is that this piece sits apart at the end of it's progress but it's basic material - it's ingenuity, it's grand scale, it's complexity and challenge - all are brilliant extensions of what we find in the rest of his canon.  What separates it from my usual reaction to Bach is it's resonance with later works that explore feelings of anguish: not the sadness of his simplest arias, the glory of his public works, or the contemplation of a keyboard fugue.  It has a great weight in it's emotional effect compared to it's siblings.  It is quite a modern thing.
 Some have found liturgical connections in its passacaglia, those are I suspect lost on most listeners.  This gets to us because of our familiarity with later musical effects which we are well used to triggering our feelings in a deeper way.

I'd like to make the case for a great organist's last recording of the work which, somehow, takes me to a prime example of a great performance full of feeling even for the non-musically minded.  Its a powerful account reminding us that music of earlier times has the same power to capture our attention in a way that is both exhilerating and yet uncomfortable.

The Passacaglia

The opening tread of the Passacaglia descends and keeps on going down is simple enough - ancient form of "theme" and variations begins this way.  Even in these opening minutes it's Richter's choice of full and elegant combinations of voicing is adventurous.  Richter, an experienced Kapellemeister was careful in his treatments, choosing when to take Bach out to the congregation and bringing him in using more intimate voices.  As the stops range to the more exotic, his legato carries us forward - this is important - despite his slow steady pace: inexplicably deemed boring by a contemporary reviewer in Gramophone magazine, the music moves with a serpentine quality.   The brighter, more complex the contrast between variations, the heavier the bass, the more the piece is propelled by it's voices.  When the bass slips up a register the elaborations hereafter softly curl around us.  There's a quiet interlude, which is hauntingly luminous in this account.  It sounds modern especially it re-engages with the main thrust and builds again to a powerful but uneasy climax.

There's something of the full Romantic style in the way Richter makes this piece dramatic (maybe even melodramatic for some) but it has no truck with the idea of a piece being characterised by it's probable purpose: it will not be constrained by it's catagorisation as a academic exercise, religious rite or indeed a purely private musical matter.  There is security in his steady pace and careful articulation amid the vivid almost orchestral sound.  For a man seeped in the vulnerable ways of 260 years of Bach tradition it is a great balancing act.  Moreso when you think that three years after this recording, at the time of his premature death (1981), some said the so called Historically Informed Performance or "Authentic" movement put paid to Richter's way in Bach.

You will hear greater clarity in other recordings - none I've heard so far equal his approach for their visceral punch. There will be some that argue that Richter was a long way behind the times in his approach - I'd argue he foreshadowed a time after the HIP movement when performer and their performance technique became less important (some of us became easily bored with dancing through the B Minor Mass in those years).

The Fugue

Hereafter Richter releases the astonishing power of the work - the great Prelude's complex and potent laying of foundations and it's companion part, a double fugue no less, devastating use of counterpoint - to leap two centuries into the complexities of the early C20th psychological drama.

The fugue starts with the Passacaglia theme cut in two: it's beginner as is and it's latter half remodelled: they are played together and a counter subject responds.  The remodelling lends the perception of more mobility and for much of this opening the mood is one of grace and fleeting pleasure.  These ancient forms can have devastating effects if they move from radient dwelling in the light to survival in the dark: Brahms moved to this mode in the finale to his Fourth Symphony.  The scale ramps up - the themes swim and dive from view.  Richter's treatment of ascending and descending figures gaining fullness, and power and with both, profundity.  He does this by intellect or intsinct - who knows which?  The juxtaposotion of the mix of lines, and timbres and artful control of the swell pedal and above all the pace to let these sound on this magnificent instrument.  The mood darkens as the threads become inexorably entangled. Just before 4 minutes the direction of the piece takes a sharp turn and careers disconcertingly toward darker place.

The glorious crown has thorns: a piercing Neapolitan chord, which is so discordant in Richter's realisation as to sound as modern as you like.  It shatters any prospect of careful unpicking.  Richter is cavalier with the pause that follows too - it is a confirmatory empty space; a 'no hope' silence.  The sound from this vast* Silbermann organ reverberates with that uneasy chord throughout Freiberg Cathedral throughout the pause. And there follow eight of the starkest, scariest bars - clashing registrations, thrusting momentum propelled by a now pantechnicon bass. All of the complex counterpoint offers nothing at the end and Richter leaves off without a long last chord.  It cuts off, it stops, it denies progress and denies music any more space or time.

I've yet to find a player who takes this music as far as Richter.  This will do for now - it will ring out for all time as a fine an interpretation as you can get of some of Bach's finest dramatic writing.


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