Donald Satz wrote (September 17, 2001):
I recently waxed enthsiastically about four Bach discs from Naxos performed by Wolfgang Rübsam on piano. Now is the time to discover how well he performs Bach's organ music. I have three discs for your consideration; Part 1 covers the issue above.
Wolfgang Rübsam is an impressive Bach performing artist. He gravitates to slow tempos which give him the opportunity to enhance the music's expressiveness; these slow tempos rarely result in a heavy, solemn, or dull performance. Why? Rübsam uses light textures, interesting registrations, and his rhythms are distinctive. Mix the high level of expressiveness and diversity with the light textures and interesting rhythms and registrations, and you get performances among the best available.
This is certainly the case with the eleven Kirnberger Chorales performed by Rübsam on the subject disc. Four of them are the best I've ever heard, another three are among the best. Only in one chorale, BWV 709, does Rübsam allow solemnity to enter his environment. I should mention that great strength is not a Rübsam trademark, and BWV 705 and 707/708 strongly benefit from the muscle that Andrea Marcon provides on Hänssler. However, nobody is wonderful in every respect, and nobody is as strong as Marcon. What Rübsam does convey in these chorales is easily sufficient for an essential recommendation.
Also essential are Rübsam's performances of the four remaining works on the disc; he even musters up great strength for BWV 540. He also makes BWV 576 & 770 sound like masterpieces which Bach surely must have composed.
Waht follows is the offical transcript of my Rübsam journey:
BWV 702 - Majestic music possessing strong inevitability and assurance. A great performance must be spiritually uplifting; Andrea Marcon at almost 3 minutes on Hänssler and Christopher Herrick at under 1 1/2 minutes for Hyperion provide a high degree of spirituality. Rübsam's 2 minute reading is their equal. It's vividly projected and maximizes the music's poetry.
BWV 703 - Seven slowly played but assertive notes usher in music which takes flight quickly and thoroughly. Rogg is fast and exciting; Rübsam is a little slower and quite interesting with thoroughly imaginative registrations. I call it a 'draw'.
BWV 704 - This music of magnificent stature is excellently served by Kevin Bowyer and Lionel Rogg. Again, Rübsam uses interesting registrations; he also employs some hesitations with perfection. I'll go with Rübsam for BWV 704.
BWV 705 - If you accumulated all the sadness in the world, it would perfectly fit into this chorale setting which also conveys strong nobility and determination. At any rate, that's what I get from Andrea Marcon's reading; he's one muscular and dead serious guy. Also, I think that his treatment is just right for the music. Rübsam can't compete with Marcon for muscles, although there isn't any other version better except for Marcon. Rübsam is simply up against a magical performance.
BWV 706 - This setting consists of slow, peaceful, and gorgeous music; it makes me think of long and comforting arms encompassing and absorbing all sorrow. Christopher Herrick provides a beautiful and highly legato reading with firm foundation. Rübsam is more angular and would likely be considered by many to be more interesting. Although an excellent reading, I don't feel it has the all-encompassing feature that Herrick possesses.
BWV 707 & BWV 708 - A chorale fugue and a setting on "I have left all to the Lord". The ever so slow Andrea Marcon really makes the music into a dirge of great impact. In comparison, Herrick is much too smooth and cloying; the muscular and angular approach works wonders for Marcon. Rübsam is certainly angular and well-defined. He just doesn't possess the strength of Marcon. I must admit I'm a big fan of Andrea Marcon. Any Bach work that thrives on power and thrust is in excellent hands with him.
BWV 709 - This setting is quite tender, hopeful, and sumptuous. Gerhard Weinberger's performance on CPO is mighty fine; he provides the full complement of comfort and hope with plenty of richness. In comparison, a version like Herrick's is so smooth that it sounds sappy. Rübsam is hardly the 'smooth' type, but he can be very slow. That's the case with his BWV 709; it tends to result in a solemn reading not having the hope of the Weinberger.
BWV 710 - Listening to the different versions I have, what most strikes me is how the slower ones tend to get too solemn and stale while the faster ones can sound care-free. However, Rogg's is one of the few fast performances that retains some dignity. Rübsam's tempo is 'moderate' and the performance a fine and interesting one as good as the Rogg.
BWV 711 - The text concerns God, honor, and glory; the music needs some lift and joy. Whereas Weinberger is slow, heavy, and grounded, Rogg and Herrick easily project lift-off with quick tempos and light textures. Although Rübsam is as slow as Weinberger, his textures are much lighter. Also, the slow tempo allows him to provide greater expression than Rogg or Herrick, and Rübsam takes full advantage. I do believe he gives the best of Bach in this chorale setting.
BWV 712 - The text concerns hope, and Bach's music begins with an infectious and bouncy rhythm enveloped in a sea of optimism. Weinberger, to my surprise, conveys all this excellently. Rübsam slows it down considerably, but the joy is not diminished. His textures continue lightly, he uses hesitations beautifully to increase interest and poignancy, and the result is a full-course meal. This is Rübsam at his best, and he has impacted me much greater through BWV 712 than any other artist on record.
BWV 713 - This fantasia finds Weinberger too heavy, Rogg too quick and light, and Werner Jacob just right. Jacob's tempo is moderate with a great bouncing rhythm and much transparency. However, there is more diversity in the music to be mined, and Rübsam is just the man to do it. All his best qualities again come to center-stage. He's slow, always thinking, uses attractive textures which retain a fine foundation, and his rhythms are just unusual enough to be highly distinctive without sounding willful or perverse.
Toccata & Fugue in F major, BWV 540 - Lionel Rogg 'streaks' through the sky in the Toccata with great propulsion; Rübsam 'explodes' with intensity. The Fugue gets an even more exceptional performance from Rübsam; his stature, strength, and incisiveness are superb.
Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 - I prefer this work played in a 'tough as nails' manner emphasizing the music's muscle and severity. Then when the rays of light enter, the contrast is tremendous. A version such as Vernet's on Ligia is much too sweet and optimistic; it's the opposite of tough and the rays of light have little impact. Two of my favorite versions have come from Ton Koopman on Teldec and Albert Schweitzer on Pearl. Schweitzer is particularly severe and a blast to listen to. I can't say that Rübsam equals the power of Schweitzer or Koopman, but he still comes up with a
strong and very serious reading which possesses more poetry than either Koopman or Schweitzer. These are three dynamic interpretations.
Fugue in G major, BWV 576 - This is one of those 'spurious' works that isn't recorded very much. The piece is upbeat and rather bubbly in ChristopherHerrick's hands; it's an excellent performance, but Herrick doesn't really do much except be jolly. Rübsam takes Herrick's 4 minute reading and extends it to over 6 minutes with an interpretation of majesty In addition, Rübsam is much more angular, diverse, and uses more imaginative registrations than Herrick. So it's Rübsam by a healty margin. Kevin Bowyer's performance isn't even in the running, as it is neither particularly jolly nor interesting.
Partite diverse sopra, BWV 770 - Another work of dubious Bach authorship which brings me to an artist who bears much similarity with Rübsam: Erich Piasetzki. I reviewed a few weeks back a Berlin Classics disc of Bach's organ music from Piasetzki and found him a wonderful Bach performing artist.
He and Rübsam are like twin brothers concerning registrations, tempos, textures, and expressiveness. Their basic difference is that Rübsam is more serious and severe; Piasetzki is an optimistic man. In my review, I indicated that Piasetzki's is the best BWV 770 on record that I've heard. However, he has to share that distinction with Rübsam who matches him step for step in presenting highly differentiated and rewarding variations. If you have never had much appreciation for this work, either version has a great chance of changing your opinion.
In summary, the disc is exceptional and often of the magical variety. At the Naxos price, it's a steal for any wise purchaser. The sound isn't state of the art, but it's a trivial concern when the interpretations are of such high quality. Rübsam is embedded in my pantheon of great Bach organists, and I look forward to reviewing the other two Rübsam discs I have and to buying more of them. Actually, there are about 17 more to buy; it's like hitting the motherlode.