Pachelbel: Complete Organ Works, Vol. 1

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Also Available: Pachelbel: Complete Organ Works, Vol. 2 and Pachelbel: Complete Organ Works, Vol. 3


This set of five discs is the first volume of a recording of the complete extant keyboard works of Johann Pachelbel.

This is not the first 'complete' recording: at least the organ works have been recorded complete before. However, this is the first recording which is based on a new critical edition of his keyboard oeuvre, edited by one of the performers on this set, Michael Belotti. For this project only appropriate historical organs are used, dating from the early 18th century. The programmes on every disc are put together in such a way that there is some coherence in content, but at the same time variation between pieces based on chorales and 'free' organ works.

Pachelbel was one of the most important German composers of the second half of the 17th century. He was born in Nuremberg where he also would die at the age of 53. One of his first teachers was Georg Caspar Wecker (some of his compositions were recorded recently by Ralf Waldner: review. Probably in 1670 he enrolled in the Gymnasium Poeticum in Regensburg where he excelled and was allowed to study music externally. He became a pupil of Kaspar Prentz, himself a pupil of Johann Caspar Kerll. It was probably through Prentz that he became acquainted with the Italian style. His knowledge in this realm was enhanced when he moved to Vienna where he acted as deputy organist of the Stephansdom. From 1673 Kerll also worked there as court organist. It is not quite clear whether Pachelbel took lessons from him, but his own oeuvre shows Kerll's influence.

In 1677 Pachelbel became organist of the court in Eisenach. During his time there he established contact with members of the Bach family. He is one of the composers who influenced the development of Johann Sebastian as a composer of organ music, especially in the genre of the chorale partita. According to the Eisenach Kapellmeister, Daniel Eberlin, Pachelbel was a "perfect and rare virtuoso". In 1678 he moved to Erfurt where he was appointed organist of the Predigerkirche. He left that post for Stuttgart where he worked for two years as court organist. The French invasion in 1692 forced him to leave Stuttgart; he then became town organist in Gotha. When in 1695 his former teacher Wecker died he was appointed as his successor as organist of St Sebaldus in Nuremberg, without the then common examination. The fact that the authorities were so eager to have him return to Nuremberg bears witness to his reputation as one of the most prominent organists of his time.

He also played a crucial role in the development of the style of keyboard composing in Germany. Through his education he was influenced by the Italian style which he then disseminated in central Germany through his pupils. He also had contacts in northern Germany, especially with Dieterich Buxtehude, one of the most prominent representatives of the North German organ school. When he published his Hexachordum Apollinis in 1699, Buxtehude was one of the dedicatees.

Pachelbel has left a large oeuvre, even though parts of his output have been lost. Although music for keyboard is by far the largest part of his oeuvre, he also composed vocal music - sacred and secular - and music for instrumental ensemble. A part of his keyboard oeuvre can be played on the organ or on a stringed keyboard instrument, such as the harpsichord and the clavichord. It is more or less a matter of taste which instrument to choose. This explains why, in this first volume, we find several pieces which are also available to perform on the harpsichord.

Pachelbel left a large number of chorale arrangements. This is remarkable as organists in his time were expected to improvise; if any of their improvisations have come down to us it is mostly through copies by pupils or colleagues. Printed editions of chorale arrangements were very rare, but Pachelbel published a set of eight during his time in Erfurt — later reprinted in Nuremberg in 1693. Most of his chorale arrangements date from this time. The contract stipulated that as organist of the Predigerkirche he should precede the singing of a chorale by the congregation with a thematic prelude based on its melody, and was to accompany the singing throughout all the stanzas. "The wording makes it clear that he was not to improvise the prelude but should diligently prepare it beforehand", John Butt writes in New Grove. This could well explain the large number of chorale arrangements which have been preserved. Scholars distinguish no fewer than eight different forms of chorale arrangement, most of which are exposed in the printed edition. One form which Pachelbel frequently used is the so-called 'combination-form': a fugue on the first line of a chorale followed by an elaboration of the complete chorale. Other forms are the bicinium in which the chorale melody is embellished first in the upper voice and then in the bass, and fugues on the opening line.

Fugues play an important role in Pachelbel's oeuvre. He wrote no fewer than 98 Magnificat fugues which date from his time as organist of St Sebaldus in Nuremberg. The Magnificat was part of the Vespers, and these fugues were used as intonations to establish the pitch for the singers. Only a minority of these fugues are thematically related to the Magnificat chant; the majority are based on free themes. This explains why they are quite popular among today's organists to be used in the liturgy; also because they are relatively short. They are very different in character: the Magnificat fugue 1. toni No. 15, for instance, is based on a very lively subject, whereas the theme of the next is a chromatically ascending line (CD 3, track 9). These fugues are divided in this CPO set over the five discs: every time only a handful in one of the ecclesiastical modes is played.

The free works are usually considered 'non-liturgical', but that doesn't mean that they could not have been played, for instance, before or after a service. Pachelbel contributed to the main genres of his time: toccatas, preludes, fantasias, fugues, ricercares and ciaconas. The combination of a toccata or a prelude and a fugue is rare; this is a form which was to become common among composers of later generations, such as Johann Sebastian Bach. In this recording some of these are combined anyway, but obviously there is no thematic relationship, only a common key. In view of their often different character they can hardly be experienced as belonging together and there are also differences in registration. The toccatas have in common that all of them are largely based on a pedal point. In Pachelbel's organ music one doesn't find the virtuosic pedal parts which were characteristic of the North German organ school. A notable exception is the Prelude in d minor which opens the first disc and which begins with an elaborated pedal solo. In the liner-notes this is attributed to influences from North Germany, in particular Buxtehude.

The last important part of Pachelbel's keyboard oeuvre is the variation. He composed a number of chorale partitas (not included here) and variations for keyboard for either organ or harpsichord/clavichord. The first disc ends with the Aria in D with six variations, but the largest collection of such pieces is the Hexachordum Apollinis of 1699. This edition includes six arias with various variations. They show strong influences from Italy and from composers such as Kerll and in particular Froberger. It is notable that in the chorale partitas - which are of an earlier date - we always find a chromatic variation. This is absent from the 1699 edition. The first five arias seem to be intended as a cycle; the sixth and last is called 'Aria Sebaldina' and is somewhat different from the others.

One of the problems editors and performers have to deal with is the question of authenticity. It’s not different here. There are several pieces which are attributed to Pachelbel in some sources, but could have been written by a composer from his environment, be it his teacher, a colleague or one of his pupils. The editors of this recording project have decided to be generous and include those pieces which may be written by someone else, also to give some idea of the environment in which Pachelbel worked. This is all indicated in the tracklist.

The various pieces have numbers; unfortunately the booklet omits any information about the identity of these numbers which may refer to the edition which is being published. It is also not very forthcoming towards non-German speakers in that the indications of the various genres of chorale arrangement are given only in German.

As I have already written, some pieces which are often played on the harpsichord are performed here on the organ. That is largely a matter of preference, and some might have liked it better on another instrument. The arias with variations do well on both, although I felt that the last variation of the set in D (CD 1, track 23) points in the direction of the harpsichord rather than the organ. Here and in the Hexachordum Apollinis I would probably have preferred a smaller organ, such as the one Christian Schmitt plays in some items on CD 2.

I have generally admired the way Pachelbel's music is played here. The four organists are excellent interpreters who know how to bring out the qualities of his various works. One can always have differences of opinion about registration. The change in registration within single pieces is questionable. In some cases I found the articulation not clear enough, and that goes especially for Michael Belotti's playing. James David Christie tends to be a little mechanical: more breathing spaces and a bit more liberty in the interpretation would have been nice. However, these are only small reservations about a remarkable, impressive and very important project. In fact, this seems to me one of the most important projects in recent times as it is a monument to one of the greatest composers of the baroque era. That is reason enough to label it Recording of the Month.

– MusicWeb International (Johan van Veen)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 777556-2

  • UPC: 761203755622

  • Label: CPO

  • Composer: Johann Pachelbel

  • Performer: Christian Schmitt, James David Christie, Jürgen Essl, Michael Belotti