Bach's Little Organ Book (Orgelbüchlein) is full of treasure, but it's just one of those jewels that I'm going to write about here, namely the penultimate piece, the chorale prelude Alle Menschen müssen sterben (All Men Must Die).
The piece is an example of four-part counterpoint. There's a noble chorale melody in the soprano (right hand), a melodically engaging two-part accompaniment in the left with much beguiling use of thirds and sixths and, finally, a bass line on the pedal that make much use of a five-note figure drawn from the accompanying tune. It's a perfect masterpiece in miniature.
Now, All Men Must Die doesn't exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, but several recording do make it sound cheerful. Take the performance by Wolfgang Zerer. Here, taken at a moderate pace, the syncopations in Bach's accompaniment have a surprisingly jaunty swing to them. I can't help feeling that it wouldn't take a great deal more swing to turn the piece into jazz! (Bach is quite susceptible to being jazzed-up). The result is dignified yet delightful.
Ton Koopman takes the prelude at a faster pace and plays it with loud jubilation throughout. The music is made to sound overpoweringly exultant. Much of the sense of swing is lost, along with quite a bit of the melodic appeal of the accompaniment, yet the performance socks you between the eyes with its confidence.
All Men Must Die, yet it's cheerful music? Well, the title uses only the first words of the text. The chorale ends by affirming the central Christian belief that death is (for the blessed) the beginning of eternal joy - and so something to be welcomed. Wolfgang Zerer and Ton Koopman are clearly aiming, in their different ways, to convey that joyful message.
If you take the piece a little slower than Mr. Zerer and a lot slower than Mr. Koopman, as Ulrich Böhme does, an air of serene confidence can enter the music. This peaceful, intimate performance is strikingly different to Ton Koopman's, isn't it? I suspect this is closer to the true spirit of the piece than Mr. Koopman's radical approach. But I could be wrong. It's certainly closer to how I like to hear it though.
YouTube offers some lovely arrangements, such as this, played in the same spirit at Mr. Böhme, on organ and viols.
But taken much slower than any of the other performances, please also take a listen to the arrangement for piano made by and played by the great Angela Hewitt. This perhaps speaks more to familiar sensibilities than any of the others as its mood of Christian hope is tinged with understandable sadness. It is absolutely beautiful. There's no exultation in it.
How do you prefer your Alle Menschen müssen sterben?