Friday, November 13, 2020

Organ portraits

Organ discs frequently focus on a particular historical organ. In many cases, the instrument is more important than the music, and that explains why in some productions the booklet includes much information about the organ and its history, and very little or even nothing at all about the organ. That is the case, for instance, with the last production under review here.

However, let me start with a disc whose booklet does offer information about both the instrument and the music. Christian Brembeck recorded a programme on the organ of St. Michael's Church in Bobenthal im Wasgau (Germany), in the southwestern corner of the Palatinate Forest, near the French border. The instrument was built in 1817 by Wendelin Ubhaus(er), an organ builder from the Anterior Palatinate. As expected, in the course of time it has been subjected to various 'adjustments', some of which were partially reversed during a restoration in 2016/17. In his selection of pieces, Brembeck was not primarily guided by the time the organ was built, but by the character of the instrument, which he describes as 'old-fashioned'. We therefore hear pieces by Scheidt, Johann Krieger, Louis Couperin, Bach and Handel, which stylistically belong to a different era. They sound quite good here, but especially the works from the 17th century would have come off better in a meantone temperament. Overall, I would have preferred music from around 1800, especially since the organ repertoire from that time is hardly known. It is represented here with pieces by Krebs, Leopold Mozart and Beethoven. Almost no organ works of the latter have survived, and that is why Brembeck plays a few little piano pieces here, including a couple of Bagatelles. A CD like this shows that little-known instruments are often wrongly neglected. It would be nice if they were used for recordings of organ literature. There is no reason why only the famous and widely-known instruments should be used for organ recordings. Christian Brembeck is an excellent organist and presents the instrument in a convincing way.

An exciting discovery is the background of the next disc. In 1995, the French organ builder Frédéric Desmottes was in the Spanish village of Cobeta in order to restore its organ, at the request of the priest who was also the prior of the Buenafuente del Sistal convent. He mentioned the remains of another instrument, which had been dismantled in 1970. These remains were such that a reconstruction was possible, and in 1997 a contract was signed to start the restoration work. However, in 2000 the nuns of the convent told that they could not afford the costs of the restoration works. Attempts to sell the organ failed, and in the end, Desmottes decided to purchase the organ himself. When permission was given to export the organ from Spain to France, it was moved to the church of Saint Éloi in Fresnes. The organ, built in 1786 by Joseph de Fuentes y Ferrer, has the characteristics of a typical Catalan organ, and therefore the programme focuses on Spanish organ works by the likes of Cabezón, Bruna, Cabanilles and Arauxo. In addition, a sonata by the Portuguese composer Seixas is included as well as some contemporary pieces by Géraud Chirol. The fact that works are played here that are much older than the organ is hardly a problem, as organ building on the Iberian Peninsula has long been based on tradition. That has been observed in the restoration of the instrument. The pipes are tuned at a'=392 Hz; the temperament is meantone with eight pure thirds. As a result, the repertoire, which is a nice mixture of better-known and less familiar pieces, comes across convincingly here. Étienne Baillot, Anne-Marie Blondel and Jean-Luc Ho give the best possible account of this excellent instrument.

The third disc may not be intended as an organ portrait, but since the instrument is prominently mentioned on the title page as well as the side-panel, the organ seems to be in its centre of interest. It was built in 1737 by Christoph Treutmann the Elder in the collegiate church of St. Georg in Grauhof, near Goslar, southeast of Hanover. It is the largest and most important work from Treutmann's workshop, who worked in Magdeburg. From 1989 to 1992 and in 2009 the instrument was restored and reconstructed. It has 42 registers, divided among three manuals and pedal. Stylistically, it combines elements of North and Central German organ building. The pitch is a'=462 Hz (known in Germany as Chorton) and its temperature is unequal according to Bach/Kellner. It will come as no surprise that the works of Johann Sebastian Bach that Mami Nagata selected, come off best. The older works, especially the Fantasia in a minor by Sweelinck, are less convincing because of the organ's temperament. However, this is also due to the interpretation; I would describe Nagata's presentation as 'solid'; unfortunately it lacks inspiration. I had trouble keeping my concentration, especially in the longer pieces, such as Buxtehude's Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein. I believe that more could have been made of these pieces. As far as the interpretation is concerned, I liked Mendelssohn's sixth organ sonata most of all the music performed here. The organ turns out to be a good instrument for this early romantic work. As the selection of pieces is not exactly very imaginative, organ lovers should consider this disc mainly because of the instrument.

On the last disc, Michael Schönheit introduces the organ in Halle Cathedral. It was built in 1851 by Friedrich Wilhelm Wäldner and is characterized in the text booklet as an example of early romanticism. The then famous organist August Gottfried Ritter expressed his praise for the instrument, the disposition of which was largely designed by him. Schönheit has put together a programme with works by Bach, Mendelssohn and Liszt. Although he is a representative of historical performance practice, we hear a rather romantic interpretation of Bach's works here. That seems quite right to me: an organ like this one does not allow baroque articulation anyway, and the sound is too dense to really reveal the polyphonic fabric. So we're hearing Bach from the perspective of the 19th century. Or, perhaps I should say: from the perspective of Franz Liszt, because two Bach arrangements from his pen are included: the prelude on 'Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen' from Bach's cantata BWV 12, and the Introduction and Fugue 'Das Lamm, das erwürget ist' from Bach's cantata BWV 21. This organ is tailor-made for such pieces. Schönheit also selected Mendelssohn's first two organ sonatas, which do well on this organ, although I prefer the Treutmann organ in Grauhof just mentioned. Here I had liked a less thick and massive sound. However, there is little wrong with Schönheit's performances. Unfortunately, some things have gone wrong during the production process. In the track-list, Liszt is not mentioned as the composer of the Introduction and Fugue. The number of the cantata from which the other Liszt piece is taken, is also omitted. Even more embarrassing is the duplication of Bach's chorale arrangement Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit. It is not only allocated to track 13, but also included as the second half of track 12, following Liszt's Introduction and Fugue. And, as I mentioned above, the booklet omits any information about the music. These are serious blots on a production, which otherwise is an attractive item for those organ lovers whose interest goes beyond the baroque period.

[1] La Pastourelle - The Ubhaus Organ in Bobenthal
Christian Brembeck
Cantate C58053 (© 2017) details

[2] Órgano viajero
Etienne Baillot, Anne-Marie Blondel, Jean-Luc Ho
Son an ero 10 (© 2017) details

[3] The Christoph-Treutmann Organ of 1737 in the former Collegiate Church of St George in Grauhof
Mami Nagata
organumclassics ogm 181013 (© 2018) details

[4] The Wäldner Organ at Halle Cathedral
Michael Schönheit
Querstand VKJK 1910 (© 2019) details