Digital Album Released – Bach & Saxton Organ Works

Jonathan’s latest recording explores the relationships between the works of J S Bach and the contemporary British composer, Robert Saxton (b. 8th October 1953).

Album links below. Read or download the booklet here…

Full album available in all the usual places (Spotify, Apple, YouTube, Amazon etc.).

c. Katie Vandyck 2022

INTRODUCTION – A dialogue between two composers

What does a composer really mean when they say they were inspired by Bach? And what creative avenues does this sort of gesture across the centuries open up for a performer?

For several years now I’ve been interested in the music of the British composer Robert Saxton, Professor Emeritus of Oxford University. I was lucky enough to be taught by Robert as an undergraduate and in recent years I’ve taken to inviting him to recitals in which I include his music. This began a process of discussion about the interpretation of his scores. I invited Robert to write more organ music and this began a formal collaboration at the Royal Academy of Music, London. This recording covers all of his current organ works, although more is planned and the earlier ‘Music for St Catharine’ is being revised by the composer. 

During the COVID lockdowns I began to build a digital instrument using Hauptwerk software, which allows sampled historic pipe organs to be played through a midi console. This home instrument enabled Robert and I to collaborate across the internet as I shared recorded sound files for his feedback. Initial questions revolved around what sort of organ was best for Robert’s music. Using this digital technology, we were able to explore the creative possibilities of instruments around the world from many different periods. After an extensive search, we selected the organ of the Magnuskerk (Anloo, NL), built between 1717 and 1719 by Johannes Radeker and Rudolph Garrels, two co-workers of Arp Schnitger, sampled by PROSPECTUM. The software allowed us to make adjustment to the acoustic too, in order to create the ideal acoustic space for the music. 

From our discussions, it was increasingly clear that Robert’s concept of the instrument was based on his childhood memories: ‘as a schoolboy, I had listened to, and been profoundly affected by, Helmut Walcha’s recordings of JS Bach’. Partly, this was aesthetic, and he would refer to the brilliance and clarity from instruments by builders such as Arp Schnitger, but there was also an interest in the interpretational possibilities that might be discovered using historic instruments. As we worked in detail on the specific temperaments, pitch, registrations, tempos and articulation etc., a much deeper relationship between Bach and Saxton’s music emerged. We discussed many of the technical considerations of the generation that grew up with historically informed performance and it was through discussions of Jacques van Oortmerssen’s performances and writings that we began to experiment with the ‘Bachian’ possibilities in Saxton’s music. The use of early fingering as an approach to articulation in modern music was particularly important because many of the textures and motifs seemed to have their origins in the memory of Bach. 

The recital programme here was constructed to demonstrate these relationships. Initially this was based on genres – hence choral preludes and passacaglias, but it was then expanded to pair works that had a sort of symbiotic relationship. Through these pairings and the use of similar tonal areas, registrations and approaches to articulation and shaping, I hope to demonstrate the fruitfulness of pairing these composers. The semi-quaver figuration that provides the moto perpetuo of Bach’s ‘Dorian’ Toccata falls over into In memoriam Oliver Knussen, and the sighing gestures that form the basis of O Lamm Gottes, unschuldig reappear in Saxton’s Wo Gott zum Haus nicht gibt sein Gunst. Bach’s Passacaglia has been a central influence on Saxton and this has been paired with two of his own memorial works, the Passacaglia for John McCabe and the Tombeau for H.B. (Harrison Birtwistle). Bach’s Das alte Jahr vergangen ist has been included as another nod to the Orgelbüchlein Project which commissioned Wo Gott, but also to highlight the shared stasis of this and the Tombeau. The sense of dance is never far away in Bach or Saxton’s music and the Berceuse, written on the birth of my son, presents another facet of this. The programme ends with the ‘Dorian’ Fugue, providing a grand display of the counterpoint that inspires so much of Saxton’s music and a sense of tonal closure to the overall recital.

Although the performance of Saxton was a starting point for this research, through this creative process, ideas have gone back and forth. Ultimately, preparing the Saxton has changed the manner in which I’ve played the Bach as much as the Bach has changed the way I play the Saxton. For the listener, I hope that this demonstrates the ways in which this ‘new’ music relates to the past, but also how ‘new’ Bach’s music can appear. As a method of research, I hope this album demonstrates some of the collaborative possibilities of using digital instruments. 

Jonathan Clinch

Royal Academy of Music 

October 2022

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