What a pleasure it has been to listen
to George Ritchie’s Bach! Recorded between 1992 and 2004,
the works are grouped into six volumes, each but the first containing
two CDs. Each volume is centered on a particular theme or group
of works, having been previously available individually. As such,
they have already received well-deserved high acclaim worldwide.
They are as follows: Vol. I (Raven OAR-250): German
Virtuosity and Italian Elegance, played on the II/52
Fritts-Richards Opus 3 (1984) of St. Alphonsus Parish Church, Seattle,
Wash.; Vol. II (Raven OAR-300): Leipzig Mastery,
played on the III/53 Taylor & Boody Opus 19 (1992) of Christ
Church Cathedral, Indianapolis, and the IV/81 Taylor & Boody
(1985) at the College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, Mass.; Vol.
III (Raven OAR-400): For Music Lovers and Connoisseurs,
played on the IV/109 Anton Heiller Memorial Organ (John Brombaugh)
(1981-86) at the Church of Seventh-day Adventists, Southern Adventist
University, Collegedale, Tenn.; Vol. IV (OAR-470): Foreign
Influences, played on the II/35 Noack (1995) at Christ
the King Evangelical Lutheran Church, Houston, Tex., and the II/47
Yokota (1984-90) at California State University, Chico; Vol. V (OAR-580):
Orgelbüchlein Plus, played on the
III/83 Gottfried and Mary Fuchs Organ (Paul Fritts) (1995-98) in
Lagerquist Concert Hall, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma, Wash.;
and Vol. VI (OAR-740): Youthful Brilliance,
played on the III/75 Pasi Opus 14 (2003) at St. Cecilia Cathedral,
Omaha, Nebr., and the IV/92 Fisk Opus 78 (1979) at House of Hope
Presbyterian Church, St. Paul, Minn.
As the foregoing attests, Dr. Ritchie has chosen some outstanding
examples of American organbuilding in historical styles for this
formidable and eminently successful survey of these inimitable works.
He is abetted by his colleague, George Stauffer, with whom he co-authored
the book, Organ Technique: Modern and Early
(Oxford University Press), and who has provided six excellent essays
about the composer, the music and the historical contexts in which
the works were created. Each volume also provides information on
the instruments, and the specific registrations used for each work.
It is not possible to discuss every detail of these recordings
in this limited space, although they surely deserve it. Suffice
it to say that this can be considered a premier integral recording
of the Bach organ works. While the performances may be considered
to be textbook examples of Bach playing according to current scholarship,
they go far beyond pedantry. George Ritchie turns in benchmark performances
that are consistently at the highest level of musicianship, artistry,
attention to contemporary and historical scholarship, intelligence,
imagination, sensitivity to text relationships, phrasing, registrations,
and other details, high virtuosity, and exquisite elegance. His
skillful use of “articulate legato” is given many and
varied applications, according to the style and context of each
work. A few details are discussed below.
Dr. Ritchie employs a variety of plenum registrations, some based
on the 32’ series (Prelude in E Minor, BWV 548, Fantasy
in G Minor, BWV 542, Toccata in D Minor, BWV 565,
Kyrie, BWV 671, Magnificat Fugue, BWV 733) and
others on the 16’ series (many examples). He well understands
and projects the gravität and majestät
that Bach is known to have championed. In the Passacaglia in
C Minor he employs the plenum throughout, in accordance with
Baroque custom. He uses the early text from manuscripts of J.C.
Bach and Krebs for the Passacaglia, and incorporates ornaments in
the first 48 measures that are derived from a manuscript thought
to have been owned by C.P.E. Bach. The various chorale settings
demonstrate Dr. Ritchie’s sensitivity to textual influence,
registering and playing “according to the sense of the words.”
He uses a single 4’ flute in Allein Gott, BWV 675,
and Vom Himmel hoch, BWV 701, with an alluring effect.
Another compelling effect is his use of a single 8’ Principal
for the Prelude and Fugue in A Major, BWV 536, as well
as for the Fantasia in C Minor, BWV 562. In works with
repeated sections, Dr. Ritchie employs tasteful and imaginative
alterations of ornaments or melismas, as he also does in the Adagio
of BWV 564. In general, Dr. Ritchie does not insert cadential cadenzas
in the large works. Works inspired by Italian models (including
the Concertos) are performed in a lighter, more virtuosic manner.
Some of Dr. Ritchie’s most exquisite and alluring playing
is in the Trio Sonatas, which he performs with great aplomb and
joyous abandon. For the Canonic Variations, he uses the
revised version, placing the most complex variation (No. 5 in the
original) in the middle. He uses later versions of the Preludes
and Fugues in G Minor and A Major, BWV 535 and 536,
respectively. In the Orgelbüchlein, he plays the second
version of “Liebster Jesu.”
In any “complete” series of this magnitude, it is inevitable
that certain decisions must be made in terms of inclusiveness. In
this series, Dr. Ritchie has chosen not to include the relatively
recently discovered Neumeister Chorales, composed about
a decade prior to the Orgelbüchlein. As one would
expect, the “Eight Little” Preludes and Fugues are absent.
Also absent are other works of dubious authenticity: the Concerto
in C Major, BWV 594, and the Partita on “Ach, was
soll ich Sünder machen,” BWV 770. A number of miscellaneous
chorale settings did not make the list, among them three settings
of Allein Gott and two settings of In dulci jubilo.
However, these minor omissions should in no way detract from the
overall success of the project. An index of the works, including
BWV numbers and their location by CD and track number will prove
In summary, these performances and instruments are a compelling
testimonial to the current research, scholarship, and thinking regarding
Bach performance practice. Kudos to George Ritchie, George Stauffer,
producer William T. Van Pelt, recording engineer Ed Kelly, and all
who played supportive roles in this magnificent production. Each
volume is splendidly produced, in terms of the consistent excellence
of the recorded sound as well as the presentation and packaging.
Special commendation goes also to the builders of these outstanding
instruments. These recordings are highly recommended for every serious
or inquiring student, teacher, or performer of Bach who wishes to
gain insight on performing Bach’s organ works. It is also
a richly rewarding listening experience for any music lover.