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CD reviews

Organ Music from North Germany

[I] "Gröningen 1596"
Jean-Charles Ablitzer, organ

rec: June 13 - 15, 2010, Harbke, St. Levin Kirche
Musique et mémoire - MMP 2010-02 (© 2010) (71'24")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Hans-Leo HASSLER (1564-1612): Canzon in g minor; Magnificat 4. toni; Ricercar del 2o tono; Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): A solis ortus cardine; Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam; Magnificat 2. toni; Magnificat 4. toni; Michael PRAETORIUS (1572-1621): Alvus tumescit virginis; Summo Parenti gloria; Vita sanctorum; Wir gläuben all an einen Gott

[II] "Alt-Hamburgischer Organistenspiegel"
Jens Wollenschläger, organ; Jens Hamann, baritone; Vocal ensemble Vox Viva

rec: March 11 - 14, 2008, Hamburg, St. Jacobi
IFO classics - ORG 7236.2 (© 2008) (76'00")
Liner-notes: D
Cover & track-list

Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (5 versus); Hieronymus PRAETORIUS: Magnificat 1. tonia; Jakob PRAETORIUS the younger (1586-1651): Was kann uns kommen an für Not (pedaliter): 1. Versus; Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722): Was kann uns kommen an für Not à 2 Clav; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1596-1663): Praeambulum ex D manualiter; Dic nobis Maria quid vidisti in Via (Auff 2. Clavier); Matthias WECKMANN (1621-1674): Ach wir armen Sünder (3 versus); Fantasia ex D; O lux beata Trinitas (6 versus)

[III] Johann PRAETORIUS (1595 - 1660): "Selected Organ Works"
Friedhelm Flamme, organ

rec: May 18 - 19, 2007, Klostergut Holthausen, Peter-und-Paul-Kirche
CPO - 777 344-2 (© 2009) (65'08")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ; Christe, qui lux es et dies; Da pacem Domine; Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland; Mein junges Leben hat ein End; Nun freut euch, lieben Christen gmein; O Gott, du unser Vater bist; Psalm 116 (Ich lieb den Herren); Puer nobis nascitur; Vater unser im Himmelreich

The North German organ school of the late 16th and the 17th centuries was second to none in Germany and even in Europe. The organists who were active in the main towns of the region, like Hamburg and Lübeck, were notable for their superior technical skills, had the best and largest organs at their disposal and were held in high esteem. The three discs to be reviewed here deliver some specimens of the art of the organists who were working in the North of Germany from the late 16th to the early 18th century. One name turns up in three of these discs: Praetorius. Hieronymus, Jakob and Johann all belonged to a family of organists who dominated the organ scene in Hamburg for three generations. Michael Praetorius was not related to the family of organists. As it will turn out there are also other things which link these discs together.

The title of the first disc refers to a special occasion. On 2 August 1596 53 organists from all over Germany had come to the castle of Gröningen, near Halberstadt, in order to examine the organ which Duke Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig-Lüneburg had ordered from the organ builder David Beck. Among them were masters who are still famous as composers: Hieronymus Praetorius, Michael Praetorius and Hans-Leo Hassler. From all three only few organ works have been preserved. This can be explained from the fact that organists mostly improvised, and there was little need to write anything down, let alone to publish organ music. The fact that no pieces are known from the pen of the other 50 organists which were present in Gröningen shouldn't give the impression that these were just middle-of-the-road organists. Many of them played in prestigious towns and churches, and must have been quite skillful.

For this recording the organ of Gröningen, which was moved to the Marienkirche in Halberstadt in 1770, has not been used. The booklet includes several pictures from ornaments of this organ, and from that one may conclude that the case still exists. But the booklet states that "the interventions and rebuilds, which were intended to adapt the organ to changing tastes and different technical condictions, lead to an almost complete mutilation of the Gröningen castle organ (...)". Ablitzer has travelled to Harbke in Saxony-Anhalt. Here the St. Levin Kirche has an organ which was built by Gottfried Fritsche in 1621/22, which was extended in 1727/28 by Christoph Treutmann. The latter used some of the pipework of the Fritsche organ who on his turn used some of the pipework of the previous organ, built by Heinrich Cumpenius (better known as Compenius). And he can be linked to David Beck, the builder of the Gröningen organ, as he is assumed to have been a pupil of Beck's father Hans.

One aspect which is notable in Ablitzer's recording is the registration. He makes use of three registration tables of the late 16th century which show that the tonal preferences of the late renaissance are quite different from the ideals of the 17th century as expressed in various treatises. In his liner-notes he summarizes them into four aesthetic criteria: "tonal contrast, concern for alternance and variety, frequence of registration change and instrumental imitation". The organ in Harbke allows to follow the suggestions in the various registration tables. Ablitzer has previously recorded music from the same period, and knows how to perform this repertoire convincingly. Only now and then I would have liked some breathing spaces. The organ sound is often spectacular in its bright colours and unexpected combinations of registers.

One of the aethetic principles as laid down by Ablitzer is "frequence of registration change". It is a matter of ongoing debate whether this includes the change of registration within a piece which can not be executed by the organist while playing. It is still not quite clear whether organists were assisted in the registration during their performances. Today most organists change registration within a piece, and so do the organists on these three discs. Another interesting matter is whether the pieces by Hassler should be registered as pieces from Northern Germany. The fact that a registration table from 1597 by Timotheus Compenius for the organ of the Stadtkirche in Bayreuth in Bavaria, is not really different from those by his father seems to justify this practice.

Hieronymus Praetorius composed settings of the Magnificat in the eight modes. It is remarkable that they all contain three or four versets which is liturgically uncommon. Therefore it is not quite clear how they were used. Ablitzer just plays them in succession, but Jens Wollenschläger has chosen a different option. He believes that one can't play them in succession because of the different keys. So he has decided to split them by including verses from the Magnificat which are sung in plainchant, alternatively by a schola and a baritone. This way the three versets of the Magnificat 1. toni are presented as an alternatim composition.

Wollenschläger has chosen the world-famous organ of the St. Jacobikirche in Hamburg. This organ is known as a product of Arp Schnitger, who completed it in 1693, but this was an renovation and enlargement of the organ which Gottfried Fritzsche has built in 1635 - the same who had built the organ in Harbke. Wollenschläger wanted to make a representative choice from pieces written by organists of the main churches in Hamburg in the 17th and 18th centuries. He compiled a list of no less than 20 names, which shows the special place of Hamburg in the North German organ landscape of that time. There are no really unknown composers in his programme, but he has wisely chosen some lesser-known pieces. An example is the chorale fantasia Was kann uns kommen an für Not by Reinken, which is overshadowed by the much longer fantasia on An Wasserflüssen Babylon. Interesting is also the choice of a motet intabulation by Scheidemann, Dic nobis Maria, after a motet by the Italian composer Giovanni Bassano. The longest and probably most technically demanding piece is Matthias Weckmann's set of variations on O lux beata trinitas. In his liner-notes Wollenschläger points out that the longest part, the fourth verset, is practically unplayable at a modern organ. He delivers an impressive performance which gives a very good idea of the astonishing level of playing and composing by the organists in 17th-century Hamburg.

The various members of the Praetorius family ranked among the most important. Jacob (c1530-1586) represented the first generation; he was organist of the St. Jacobikirche from 1558 until his death. His son was Hieronymus, who succeeded his father in 1586 as organist of St. Jacobi. He had two sons who also became organists. Jacob the younger was his second son; he studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam and was organist of the St. Petrikirche in Hamburg from 1603 until his death. He was especially known as an excellent teacher. One of his students was Matthias Weckmann. Johann was Hieronymus' fourth son; he also studied with Sweelinck. From 1612 until his death he played the organ at the St. Nikolaikirche in Hamburg. For a long time it was thought no organ works from his pen had been preserved. But recently various anonymous pieces have been attributed to him. Moreover, some compositions which for long have been attributed to Sweelinck are now assumed to be by Johann Praetorius. Among these are the variations on Psalm 116 and the famous variations on Mein junges Leben hat ein End.

As part of his projected recording of the complete organ music of the North German organ school Friedhelm Flamme has selected some of the pieces attributed to Johann Praetorius. He plays the organ of the Peter-und-Paul-Kirche in Holthausen which was built in 1764 and restored in 2007. It is a small instrument with only 7 stops with a pedal attached. All pieces can be performed manualiter which raises the question why someone who played one of Hamburg's large church organs has written so many pieces without a pedal part. Flamme is an accomplished and stylish interpreter. But as in previous recordings I find his playing sometimes a bit mechanical, which I noticed here in particular in his performance of Psalm 116. As this was formerly attributed to Sweelinck it has been recorded many times, and I have heard it in more adventurous interpretations. In Mein junges Leben hat ein End I found the registration not always convincing. But that shouldn't spoil the enjoyment of this recording, which is the first devoted to Johann Praetorius. That in itself makes this disc recommendable.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

Relevant links:

Jean-Charles Ablitzer
Jens Wollenschläger

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