Bach Organ Music for the New Year

I had not been learning the organ long before my teacher put ‘In dir ist Freude‘ (In you is joy) in front of me. Some years later I realised that the Chorale on which it is based is for New Year’s Day. Bach’s piece is full of joy and tremendous fun to play with its repeating pedal motif and dashing scales. The choral melody or fragments of it appear in minims and pass by relatively slowly. This website indicates that the first documented version of the melody is in a collection of Balletti by Gastoldi published in Venice in 1591. Certainly playing the melody at a brisk 1-in-a-bar gives it a real feeling of dance. It’s hard to hear the dance and chorale as the same tune such is the tempo difference.

Our culture treats the New Year as a cause for celebration and an excuse for a party. For a long time I struggled to understand why Bach’s setting of Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (the old year has passed away) is so sad. Finally I began to think that he is thinking of the Old Year dying and any death is of course sad. Bach knew great tragedy in his life from the early death of his parents, a tough schooling, the death of this first wife and the death of many children in infancy. Is the death of the old year just another excuse to demonstrate his toolbag of techniques. The piece features many chromatic inner lines and suspensions – some of which sound odd and one might question whether they really ‘work’. It needs to be taken slowly to allow the ear time to process the harmony and I think one wants a clear-sounding organ. Even with very light stops I find it sounds very muddy at Risley unlike on some of the recording I have listened to on the internet.

I am tempted to buy a complete set of Bach’s organ music, but how to decide. For £20-30 one can get 20 hours of music. Hans Fagius, Simon Preston and Kevin Bowyer are all in the frame. I guess they’re all good. I’m looking for clarity, good organ sound, phrasing, dance and joy in the quicker pieces, anguish etc in the slower ones, mainstream interpretations, nothing too extreme. I have many CDs of Christopher Herrick who is brilliant so I don’t really know why I’m considering more versions.