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Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) is a significant figure in the history of baroque keyboard music, but (as far as I know) this is the first complete-works recording, and Simone Stella is to be congratulated on the achievement. As composer and organist at the Predigerkirche in Erfurt (1678- 90) and at the most important church of St Sebald in his native Nuremberg (1695-1706; he was appointed by invitation rather than by competition), Pachelbel seems to have been required, contractually, to continually improve his skills. As a Protestant organist, he was thoroughly steeped in Catholic repertories, and his three publications of 1678, 1683 and 1699 may well have had a pedagogical purpose.

Pachelbel was a prolific composer of over 200 keyboard works, whose genres include many types of chorale preludes, variations, about 100 fugues, toccatas, preludes, fantasias, ricercars, chaconnes and the well-known Arias from Hexachordum Apollinis. In addition, there are more than 20 dance suites, of which only three can now be fully authenticated. However, Stella plays them all on the first four CDs, together with the Hexachordum Arias, on a modern harpsichord after Ruckers. Besides the many varied keys, though, the suites do have a consistency and a limited range of expression, and performances could have been enlivened through the use of a wider variety of harpsichords. To play them all on one instrument, rather than choosing a range of keyboards – virginals, clavichords, Italian, French and German harpsichords (all of which Pachelbel would surely have been familiar with) – is somewhat of a restriction.

Conversely, the organ used here has much greater possibilities in variety of tonal colours, and Stella uses it to fine effect in the many fugues and chorale variations – the music needs it. Despite its traditional Italian case, the three-manual and pedal 30-stop organ has more to do with baroque Germany than Italy, and as it is tuned in unequal temperament, it serves the music extremely well. This is particularly evident in the fugues which, although short, are played on a very wide range of registrations that are always captivating. It is not known how the Magnificat fugues were used liturgically, for the fugue subjects are quite independent of the liturgical chants (further research needed here!).

Pachelbel’s technique for toccatas is also consistent; based on pedal notes, the keyboard figurations of parallel 3rds, 6ths and 10ths predominate. Although not difficult to improvise, Pachelbel is always surprising in his modulatory shifts and textural changes. Generally, the music is not as daring as his north German contemporaries Buxtehude and Bruhns; rather, Pachelbel’s works are finely constructed within modest scope and overall length. His greatest skill is evident in the variations, particularly in the Arias from Hexachordum Apollinis.

It is a pity that Pachelbel’s dates are incorrectly printed on all 13 CD sleeves, but the collection should be regarded in the same way as an encyclopedia – hardly to be listened to in one sitting (lasting over 15 hours), but dipped into for authoritative performances of some of the best south German keyboard music of the period.

DAVID PONSFORD Read the full review on Agora Classica

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