Saturday, November 20, 2021

Organ portraits (2)

Many years ago, in the vinyl era, Harmonia mundi released a series of recordings on historical organs, played by specialists in the field, such as Francis Chapelet and René Saorgin. Now Arnaud De Pasquale [1] is following in their footsteps, as he is given the chance to discover historical organs and make recordings of them, with appropriate repertoire. In the booklet he already whets our appetite for the second volume, which will be devoted to Mexico. The first volume includes recordings at instruments on Sicily, where - as he writes in his liner-notes - there are probably 1,500 organs, of which only about ten percent is in playing condition. One may hope that projects like this one make authorities of countries and regions realise what kind of treasures are part of their heritage and that they deserve to be preserved and, if necesary, restored. De Pasquale selected six instruments, built between 1547 and 1775-82. For his repertoire he confined himself to music by Italian composers of the 16th and 17th centuries. One may be inclined to think that later repertoire may have been more appropriate for the latest organs. However, organ building in Italy tended to be rather conservative, and there is mostly very little difference between instruments of the early 17th century and organs of the mid-18th century. Music by composers from Naples and its nearby regions takes a central place. The Italian scholar Dinko Fabris points out that there is hardly any Sicilian keyboard repertoire. Sicily and Naples were closely connected, not only geographically, but also due to the fact that for several centuries both were under Spanish rule. De Pasquale included some ensemble pieces as well as secular vocal items, considering that the organ was used for secular music as well. That is certainly right, but such music was not played in church. Setting that issue aside, this is a most exciting disc, as we get acquainted here with organs that hardly anyone may have ever heard, in repertoire that allows their specific features to be demonstrated, in stylish performances by De Pasquale. This is a series that every organ lover needs to keep an eye on. On a critical note, it is disappointing that the booklet omits details of the organs, such as their disposition, pitch and temperament.

With the next disc we stay in Italy, but move to Florence. Giovanna Riboli presents the organ in the Badia Fiorentina, an abbey and church now home to the Monastic Communities of Jerusalem situated on the Via del Proconsolo in the centre of Florence. It was completed in 1558 by Onofrio Zeffirini da Cortona (Tuscany). In 1978 the instrument was restored and returned to its original state. Its temperament is quarter comma meantone. Giovanna Riboli [2] has put together a programme of music that covers a large part of Europe; the exception is France. Obviously, the temperament of this organ reduces the repertoire: in the course of the 18th century meantone temperament gradually went out of fashion. Because of this, Riboli has confined herself to pieces from the 16th and 17th centuries. It has to be said that she has not been very adventurous in her selection: nearly all the pieces are pretty well-known. The exceptions may be those by Scheidemann and Correa de Arauxo. The various genres common in the 16th and 17th centuries are represented: toccata, fantasia, variations and transcriptions. The organ was also used in secular music, and that seems to have inspired Riboli to add a dance by Scheidemann. However, such music was certainly not played in church. Farnaby's variations on Mal Sims turn out to be a bad choice: probably due to the reverberant acoustic, the tempi are too slow, which takes away its sparkle. Generally the tempi seem rather slow. Giovanna Riboli is a fine organist and I have certainly enjoyed what is on offer here. It is just that I would have liked a less conventional selection of music and also pieces that are better suited to the acoustic of the church, also with regard to tempo.

The next disc is is devoted to a very special instrument, which is situated in the chapel of Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerød in Denmark. It dates from 1610, was built by Esaias Compenius and was originally commissioned by Duke Heinrich Julius von Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. It was to be placed in his summer residence at Hessen Castle. When the Duke died, his widow Elisabeth decided to give the instrument to her brother, King Christian IV of Denmark. In 1617 the organ was installed in the chapel. The organ has two manuals, 27 stops and 1001 pipes. The most notable aspect of the instrument is that all the pipes are made of wood, which was highly unusual. Mads Kjersgaard, in his liner-notes, points out that, considering that the manufacture of wooden pipes was nearly "virgin territory", it is a mystery how Compenius was able to produce such a magnificent organ. It is undoubtedly his masterpiece in the field of organ building. The organ can be played exclusively with wind produced by a calcant on a total of four bellows. As this organ was originally intended as a secular instrument for performance in the ducal castle, the programme recorded by Peter Waldner [3] largely focuses on secular pieces. The concept is quite original: we get a sort of biography of Christian IV, who ruled Denmark for 59 years, from 1588 to 1648, and the various stages of his life are illustrated by pieces from across Europe. Under the header 'Children', for instance, we get Giles Farnaby's A Toye. One of the king's main occupations, the hunt, is illustrated by John Bull's famous piece The King's Hunt. Kings were usually involved in wars, and that was not any different in Christian's case. It is illustrated by the Batalla by the Spanish composer José Ximénez. Most pieces do well on this organ, also thanks to the not too reverberant acoustic. Waldner is a fine player who does justice to both the organ and the music.

Most organs built in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries have considerably changed in the course of history. As they played a substantial role in the liturgy, they were adapted to the taste of the time and the requirements of liturgical music. Sometimes it is possible to restore such instruments to an earlier stage, and often this requires a considerable amount of reconstruction. The disc under review here is devoted to an instrument that has been entirely reconstructed. The image of a Phoenix rising from the ashes has to be taken litterally here, as nothing but the case of the organ at the Franciscan Holy Trinity Church in Gdansk has survived. Andrzej Szadejko [4] was responsible for the concept used to reconstruct the organ on the basis of the instrument that was built in the early 18th century and was replaced by a pneumatic organ in 1914. Only the case of that organ could be put together again. The builder of the new organ, Kristian Wegscheider, a specialist in the restoration and reconstruction of historical organs, has done a magnificent job in the Holy Trinity Church. It is a very fine instrument as is demonstrated in this recording of mainly (north) German organ music by Szadejko, who is an excellent player. It is also due to the acoustic that the organ's qualities come off so brilliantly here. This disc is the first of a promising series devoted to organs in Gdansk.

For lovers of historical organs Stralsund is a famous name because of the Stellwagen organ in the Marienkirche, one of the main historical instruments in Germany. In comparison, the organ of the St. Jakobikirche is far lesser known. It is largely a modern instrument, built by Kristian Wegscheider, who also restored and reconstructed the Stellwagen organ. The 18th-century organs in the St. Jacobikirche were taken as the starting point for the building of the new instrument, which found its place in the baroque case. The programme is a mixture of German works of the 17th and 18th centuries, from Buxtehude to Krebs. It is nice that we also get pieces by little-known masters, such as Druckenmüller, Erich and Leyding. One of the highlights is the magnificent set of variations on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr by Daniel Magnus Gronau. We know Martin Rost [5] as an excellent organist, who has portrayed many organs on disc. He is also the incumbent organist of the Marienkirche. As he knows the new instrument very well, he is the man to demonstrate its features, and he does so very well. This organ is another masterpiece of Kristian Wegscheider.

'Bach in Lübeck' is probably not intended to portray the organs in St. Jakobi in Lübeck, but considering the importance of the instruments in relation to Bach's works selected for the recording, it seems appropriate to include this disc here. We already met the name of Stellwagen, as he was the builder of the organ in the Marienkirche in Stralsund. He is also the builder of the 'small' organ in St. Jakobi. That instrument is only called 'small' because of the large organ, but it still has three manuals and pedals, which makes it suitable for most German baroque organ music. The large organ is more of the result of a long history of adaptations, restorations and reconstruction which makes it impossible to put the name of one builder on it. Both instruments are clearly inspired by the music of the north German organ school. This had a strong influence on the young Bach, and therefore Arvid Gast [6] has selected pieces that betray that influence, such as the preludes and fugues BWV 531 and 549a as well as the Toccata BWV 566. In addition there are some pieces based on chorales, such as the Partita Ach, was soll ich Sünder machen. The pedals play an important part in this repertoire, and playing the pedals was an art that was highly developed in North Germany. It must have greatly inspired Bach, witness the brilliance of the pedal parts in many of his own organ works. Gast is a stylish interpreter, who - being the incumbent organist of St Jakobi - knows exactly how to use these instruments for a convincing interpretation of Bach's oeuvre.

For the last two discs we move south, to Regensburg in Bavaria. Roman Emilius [7] presents two organs, which are connected by the name of Frantz Jacob Späth, but in very different ways. Späth has become best-known for the invention of the tangent piano. However, he was also active as a builder of organs. He built the organs in the Oswaldkirche and in the Dreieinigkeitskirche in Regensburg. The former was finished in 1750 and has largely been preserved. The adaptations of the 1950s, with the purpose of making possible the performance of the entire baroque repertoire, have been undone later, and its south German character has been restored. Music of the north German organ school and a part of Bach's organ works cannot be performed here in a satisfactory manner. That makes it rather odd that Emilius selected several such pieces for his recording. Those don't come off that badly, but I missed the clarity of north German instruments. Pieces by Neufville, Mozart and Krebs are more convincing. However, the articulation is generally not clear enough, and the tempi are often a bit slow. I have never heard Bach's Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659) being played so slowly.

In 1758 Späth finished the building of an organ in the Dreieinigkeitskirche. Apparently it did not satisfy and it was soon replaced; only the case and some principal pipes were preserved. In modern times Hendrik Ahrend was asked to build a new instrument in the old case. Starting point was the disposition of the instrument of the 18th century, but "without neglecting the modern needs of a church organ", as Ahrend writes in the booklet. At the reverse of this disc the organ is called a 'Bach organ', but that seems a misnomer, even setting aside that the label 'Bach organ' is rather problematic in itself. The programme includes two of Bach's most popular organ works, the Toccata and fugue BWV 565 (which is of doubtful authenticity) and the Passacaglia BWV 582. I find the performances unsatisfying: they are rather massive and lack transparency, and the tempi are too slow. In addition there are some extreme dynamic contrasts which are not in line with historical performance practice, and frequent changes of registration. A Fantasia by Froberger needs meantone temperament. Emilius also plays a suite from Mozart's Zauberflöte and Messiaen's Chants d'oiseaux from his Livre d'orgue of 1951. Given that in recordings with organ portraits the instruments are more important than the music, one may overlook the shortcomings in the interpretation, although I find in particular the second of these two discs hard to swallow. Organ lovers who are interested in the instruments themselves, may consider adding these discs to their collection anyway.

[1] Orgues de Sicile
Arnaud De Pasquale
Perrine Devillers, soprano; Sarah Dubus, Camille Frachet, cornett; Jérôme Van Waerbeke, violin; François Guerrier, organ (II)
Harmonia mundi HMM 905331 (© 2021) details

[2] The Organ of Badia Fiorentina
Giovanna Riboli
Brilliant Classics 95957 (© 2020) details

[3] Life Pictures - Scenes of the Life of King Christian IV
Peter Waldner
Tastenfreuden 8 (© 2020) details

[4] Like a Phoenix from the Ashes - An Organ Portrait
Andrzej Mikołaj Szadejko
MDG 906 2157-6 [SACD] (© 2020) details

[5] Orgel in St. Jakobi zu Stralsund
Martin Rost
Querstand VKJK 2011 (© 2020) details

[6] Bach in Lübeck
Arvid Gast
Querstand VKJK 2007 (© 2020) details

[7] The Späth Organ (1750) in St. Oswald Regensburg
Roman Emilius
TYXart TXA 19144 (© 2020) details

[8] Die neue Ahrend-Orgel Dreieinigkeitskirche Regensburg
Roman Emilius
Spektral SRL4-20185 (© 2021) details