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Hans Fagius is among the most eminent of modern Bach interpreters, and this project presents his long-considered response to a request from a Norwegian organist for a book which would be of value to students daunted by the prospect of advanced study of Bach’s organ works in ‘historical’ performing style. The principles of this approach – paired scale fingerings, no finger substitution, toe-pedalling and so on – are often understood in theory, but many players find them daunting to put into practice: this book offers a path to implementing such ideas in performance. It’s a winning idea, superbly executed, and of such obvious value that it’s extraordinary it has not been done before on this scale with such a central part of the repertoire.

The 49 pieces it contains are drawn from across the entire spectrum of Bach’s œuvre – only the concerti and the partitas are not represented – beginning with the first of the ‘Short Eight’ and progressing to movements from Claveriübung III and the trio sonatas, with a view to making the volume a useful general, as well as didactic, anthology. The first book begins by providing a chronology of Bach’s life and a general overview of the organ works, before discussing the issues underlying a historically informed interpretation of the works: fingering and pedalling, articulation, affekt and rhetoric, ornamentation and instrument types are all discussed in a refreshingly undogmatic and musicologically realistic way, with pertinent quotes from contemporary sources and musical examples to support the points at hand. The language (the author rather winsomely refers to his ‘poor school English’) is serviceable rather than elegant, but communicates the essence adequately enough. Each work is then provided with a short commentary, dealing in turn with affekt and articulation, tempo, and registration, with brief analytical discussion where necessary. Chorale-based works are supplied with the melody, text of the first verse, and translation. The author has developed an intricate system of modified slurs and dots/strokes for notating of fine points of articulation and interpretation which are discussed here; it really needs to be assimilated fully for the interpretative comment to be of maximum value, but once understood serves well to communicate subtleties of touch and accent more easily understood by listening and demonstration than by verbal description.

The second volume contains the musical texts of the works, comprehensively fingered and pedalled (with the provision of occasional alternative possibilities for the player who finds the undiluted Alte Spielweise too strong), with suggested realisations of ornaments provided in footnotes. The musical text is helpfully uncluttered, and the fingering and pedalling suggestions are (for the most part) comfortable and practical. It’s possible to take issue with some small points – pedalling indications sometimes seem not entirely consistent with the principles outlined in the first volume, and some ornament realisations (in BWV 659, for example) might helpfully have offered a wider range of options. An outline, however brief, of the source material for each piece would also have been instructive in this context; it often has a bearing on matters of ornamentation, for example. But no book of this scope can do everything, and these minor considerations should not detract from the value and enterprise of an excellent and imaginative project.

This book should be on the shelves of every serious student, player, and teacher of the repertoire.

STEPHEN FARR Read the full review on Agora Classica

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