Exactly a week ago the German label cpo released the second volume in its project to record the complete organ music of Johann Pachelbel. Three of the four organists that had contributed to the first volume, which was released in the summer of 2013, are performing. These are (in alphabetical order of their last names) Michael Belotti, James David Christie, and Jürgen Essl. According to the booklet notes provided by Belotti (translated into English by J. Bradford Robinson), the entire project is expected to fill ten CDs. The first volume accounted for five of those CDs, while the new release advances the count by only two. The recordings for this volume were made from performances on historic organs in central and southern Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.
Belotti is also the editor of a new edition of The Complete Works for Keyboard, which is used as the source for all performances. This publication is also a work-in-progress. It is planned as a series of twelve volumes, only the first five of which have been published to date. The volumes are organized by genre, and the third through fifth of them are devoted entirely to fugues based on the theme of the Magnificat chant. Within this category the fugues are usually (but not always) arranged in groups of four and classified according to the eight reciting tones, which are related to the modal scales for plainchant. Across the seven CDs released thus far, there are representatives of all eight tones; but it is clear that the recording of the entire contents of these volumes of these fugues is not yet complete.
Each of the two CDs in the second volume also has an overall “topic.” The first volume involves liturgical music for Christmas. This consists primarily of chorale preludes for hymns covering services from Advent to Epiphany, along with eight of the Magnificat fugues, performed as two sets of four. The remainder of the CD includes preludes, toccatas, and fugues that would have been played during different portions of the service. The second volume is devoted to a collection of Psalm Hymns. The booklet identifies it as the third such collection with little information about how many others there are. Five Psalms (103, 124, 127, 130, and 137) are included, each represented by multiple compositions, usually including at least one chorale prelude and one fugue. There is also an “introductory” prelude and fugue not associated with any specific Psalm.
All of this music was the result of Pachelbel’s profession as a church organist. Like Dietrich Buxtehude, he comes from the generation preceding that of Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach may not have made the same sort of pilgrimage for Pachelbel that he made to listen to Buxtehude; but his oldest brother, Johann Christian, had studied under Pachelbel. This recording project thus provides a valuable source of background knowledge for those interested in both playing and listening to Sebastian’s music.
At this point I must observe, in all fairness, that all of the tracks I have listened to since the project was first launched were “first contact” experiences. Any familiarity comes entirely from the the source material for both the hymns and the Magnificat chant. As a result I am not particularly equipped for any “deep-end examination.” On the other hand I have a strong personal interest in the organ repertoire, particularly for music prior to the nineteenth century; so it did not take much to lure me into following the current cpo project. However, the best I can report in fairness is that the combinations of instrument and performer (probably along with recording team) all yield a clarity of the music that Pachelbel wrote that is far more than merely satisfying. In other words the attentive listener will come away from these recordings with a generous perspective of the context in which Bach would pursue his own craft as an organist. What more could one wish for in venturing into this particular unknown territory?