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CD Review

Johann Sebastian Bach

MSR 1444

Organ Music

  • Prelude & Fugue in E flat Major "St Anne", BWV 552
  • Toccata & Fugue in F Major, BWV 540
  • An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653
  • Prelude & Fugue in C minor, BWV 546
  • Choral Prelude "O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross", BWV 622
  • Fantasy & Fugue in G minor "Great G minor", BWV 542
  • Prelude & Fugue in E minor "Wedge", BWV 548
Barbara Harbach, organ
MSR Classics MS1444 74:40
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For those relative few who may not be familiar with her career, Barbara Harbach is a highly acclaimed organist, harpsichordist and composer, clearly one of the most respected composer-performers before the public today. She is also a teacher (professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis) and founder of a music publishing company, Vivace Press. As a composer Harbach has been quite versatile, turning out symphonies, operas, musicals, ballets, film scores, chamber and choral works and various keyboard pieces. As a performer she has championed works by female composers but without abandoning mainstream repertory, as the disc under review underscores.

These performances were originally issued on Gasparo Records and have now been expertly remastered here by the MSR engineers, the results having state-of-the-art sound quality. The first three works were recorded on the Fisk Organ at the Downtown Presbyterian Church, Rochester, NY, and the remainder on the Schlicker Organ at the First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Lyons, NY. I slightly favor the latter instrument, though both certainly have superb sound.

Harbach is a fine Bach player: every work on this CD comes across with spirit and a deft sense for the plentiful contrapuntal writing. She plays Bach with judicious tempos throughout, and never seems to inject a wayward personal touch or eccentricity into the music. Her interpretations are fairly straightforward, always sounding vital and intelligent, never calculated or cautious.

In the Prelude half of the Prelude and "St. Anne" Fugue, Harbach nicely conveys the stately character of the music with a full but never fulsome sound and her fugue builds to such a magnificent and all-conquering triumph that it becomes hard to imagine a more convincing account of this great piece. The ensuing works are played with the same kind of intelligence and spirit. Listen to the subtlety in her opening of Bach's Chorale Prelude from the Orgelbüchlein, O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross ("O Man, thy grievous sin bemoan"), and notice how she points up the sense of regret and pain with a slightly understated approach that also highlights a curious serenity and mystery in the music. And take note of the drive and epic character of the fugue in the G minor Fantasy and Fugue. Here you notice a clarity and crispness in the playing that give the music both energy and a lean muscularity, yielding a convincing and utterly vital performance. The vigor and bright character that Harbach brings out in the Prelude half of the "Wedge" Prelude and Fugue is balanced perfectly by her brawny and epic account of the fugal portion. The breathless running passages are brilliantly played here. A stunning performance to conclude this splendid disc.

I have reviewed some other excellent Bach keyboard CDs recently, including Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier performed on piano by Kimiko Ishizaka on Navona Records (Navona 5995) and a collection of organ works by Todd Fickley (MSR 1561), also on MSR Classics. This disc by Barbara Harbach is just as outstanding as those two and thus warrants a strong recommendation.

Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings