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Albert Schweitzer Plays Bach

March 7, 2010

Albert Schweitzer, by Arthur William Hentzelman.

Albert Schweitzer
Bach: Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor

Recorded in 1936

Dr. Albert Schweitzer was one of humanity’s greatest benefactors. At a time when it was still possible to do so, he helped preserve many old baroque organs from scrapping, and he began a trend that culminated in the great baroque-organ revival. Because of Dr. Schweitzer, it is still possible to hear Bach played on organs that sound like the ones Bach himself played. Dr. Schweitzer himself revolutionized the interpretation of Bach, raising him from a composer of mostly historical interest to a vital force in music. Apparently he did some medical stuff somewhere, too, so he must have been a good guy all around.

In the 1930s Schweitzer recorded two fat albums’ worth of Bach on organs in England, France, and Germany. I found both albums in a Salvation Army store in almost-new condition. Dr. Schweitzer supervised the engineering as well as playing the organ, and the recorded sound is so spectacular that I have done almost no noise suppression, fearing that I might interfere with Dr. Schweitzer’s meticulous work in making the organ come alive on record.

Here we have Dr. Schweitzer playing Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor on the organ of the parish church in Günsbach. The recording takes up three twelve-inch sides.

Günsbach parish church, where Dr. Schweitzer made this recording, as photographed by Stana Vetsch.

See the licensing information for the photo above on this page.

These are not like modern recorded performances. A classical recording today is heavily edited; there may be thousands of individual cuts and splices. Here, Dr. Schweitzer simply played for four minutes or so straight, until he came to the point where he had decided there would have to be a break in sides. If he wasn’t satisfied, he could record the whole side over again, but there could be no individual edits. So you will hear mistakes and hesitations, as you would have heard if you had actually been there when Dr. Schweitzer performed. The sound, as I said, is wonderfully natural, and I think the effect is more like being transported to the live performance than you can get with the carefully edited recordings musicians release today.

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