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Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665 - 1697): "Complete Organ Music"

Adriano Falcioni, organ

rec: June 25 - 27, 2013, Ferrara, Chiesa di San Giorgio
Brilliant Classics - 94447 (© 2014) (70'10")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list
Scores Bruhns

Nicolaus BRUHNS: Adagio in D ; Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, chorale fantasia; Prelude in e minor (little); Prelude in e minor (great); Prelude in G; Prelude in g minor; Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Prelude in g minor (BuxWV 148); Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (1595-1663): Galliarda ex D (WV 107); Samuel SCHEIDT (1587-1654): Bergamasca (SSWV 560); Cantio Belgica: Ach du feiner Reiter (SSWV 111) [1]; Jan Pieterszoon SWEELINCK (1562-1621): Fantasia chromatica (SwWV 258)

Source: Samuel Scheidt, Tabulatura nova, I, 1624 [1]

Nicolaus Bruhns is one of the best-known representatives of the North German organ school. Being a contemporary of Dieterich Buxtehude he belongs to the last generation of that illustrious school. His father was organist in Schwabstedt when Nicolaus was born. He learnt to play the organ as well as string instruments. In the latter department his teacher was his uncle Peter in Lübeck; here he also became the favourite pupil of Buxtehude. Bruhns developed into a virtuoso on the violin and on the organ. The German composer and theorist Johann Mattheson reported that Bruhns sometimes played both instruments at the same time: while playing the violin he realized the basso continuo part on the pedal of the organ. For some years he worked as a composer and violinist at the court in Copenhagen. In 1689 he was appointed organist of the Stadtkirche in Husum. It was stated that "never before (...) [had] the city heard his like in composition and performance on all manner of instruments". When the civic authorities in Kiel tried to make him move to their town the authority raised his salary. He remained in Husum until his death.

Partly due to his short life he left only a small oeuvre. The main part comprises twelve sacred cantatas which very likely date from his time in Husum. They show the influence of the modern Italian cantata and often include brilliant violin parts. These are but poor compensation for the lack of violin music from his pen. His organ oeuvre is very small: until recently we knew only four preludes and one chorale fantasia. Only fairly recently a sixth piece was discovered, the Adagio in D. It is part of the Husum Organ Book of 1758 which was first published in 2001. Stylistically it is different from the other pieces by Bruhns, but there seems to be no doubt about his authorship. It could have been part of a larger composition.

The preludes show the features of the North German organ school. They are written in the stylus phantasticus which has its origins in the seconda prattica which emerged in the early decades of the 17th century in Italy. They consist of various sections of contrasting character, largely following the pattern of toccata - fugue - toccata - fugue - toccata. The toccata sections have a strong improvisatory character. It should be taken into account that all the organ works from this period and this region find their origin in improvisation which was the main task of any organist. It explains that relatively few organ works have been preserved. What has come down to us is mostly what was written down by pupils or what an organist himself decided to put down for pedagogical purposes. Another notable aspect of Bruhns' organ works is the virtuosic treatment of the pedal part. The main organs in northern Germany had an independent pedal board with a rich variety of pipes and a large compass. This way they were well suited to the accompaniment of congregational singing.

The chorale fantasia Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is another typical specimen of the North German organ school. The various lines of the chorale are treated in different ways, and the chorale melody is heavily ornamented. Here Bruhns also makes use of the echo technique which points to the influence of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, the Amsterdam organist who was the teacher of many German organists and can be considered one of the founding fathers of the North German organ school.

From this angle it is appropriate that one of the latter's best-known pieces is included here, the Fantasia chromatica - or, as its original title says, Fantasia Crommatica. However, according to Sweelinck scholar Pieter Dirksen, this is not an organ piece. "[The] Fantasia Crommatica, with Sweelinck's emphatic use of the d#, which was missing on his mean-tone organ, (...) was therefore conceived for harpsichord (...)". This already indicates that the organ which Adriano Falcioni plays is not in mean-tone temperament. The booklet mentions a temperament according to Claudio Brizi but doesn't give any further details. This results in an interpretation of this piece which is not totally convincing. In a mean-tone temperament the pieces by Bruhns had also to be played in a different key. That is not the case here.

Samuel Scheidt was one of Sweelinck's main pupils. The largest part of his keyboard music has been preserved in three collections with the title of Tabulatura Nova. Although one cannot exclude the possibility that 'secular' organ music was played on the organ it seems unlikely that they were performed on the large organs in churches. The two pieces by Scheidt recorded here are variations on a secular song and on a basso ostinato respectively. They are conceived for the harpsichord in the first place. The same goes for the dances from the pen of Heinrich Scheidemann, generally considered the founder of the North German organ school. He composed quite a number of dances, mostly with variations. The Galliarda ex D is one of them.

The disc closes with one of the many preludes by Dieterich Buxtehude. The Prelude in g minor (BuxWV 148) includes a fugue but as at the time this was not clearly separated from the prelude - as is the case in the works of later composers such as Bach - it is not mentioned specifically.

I have already referred to the organ Adriano Falcioni plays. It was built by the Italian organ firm Pinchi but we are not told when it was constructed. It is modelled after German instruments: the disposition in the booklet mentions the model for every stop of the organ. For instance, the Prinzipal 16' of the Hauptwerk is a copy of the same stop from the organ of St Jacobi in Hamburg and the Schalmei 4' from the Oberwerck is modelled after the Stellwagen organ of St Jacobi in Lübeck. Most stops are copies of registers in the organ of St Peter und Paul in Cappel. That makes this organ well suited for the repertoire played here. However, the lack of a more appropriate tuning is a serious blot on this production. That is not the only reason this recital doesn't fully satisfy. Falcioni plays well and has certainly a good feeling for the idiom of the North German organ school, but often I find his playing a little stiff. In the fugue from Buxtehude's Prelude in g minor, for instance, the repeated notes are played exactly the same and staccato. There is no indication for a staccato, and a differentiation between the notes of the theme would lend it some vitality which is lacking here. The same goes for the preludes by Bruhns which include many passages with brilliant figuration, and these should be played in a more improvisatory manner.

In short, these performances are pretty good but most pieces in the programme are available in better recordings.

A word about the booklet: although it is indicated that the liner-notes are written by Falcioni, in fact they are taken from New Grove. Using single phrases is one thing but lifting a nearly complete article another. This explains why the Adagio in G by Bruhns is not mentioned as it was not known when the article was written. The most odd part of the liner-notes is that even those paragraphs from New Grove are quoted which deal with his vocal works. I don't know who is responsible for this - Falcioni or Brilliant Classics - but I find this unacceptable.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

Relevant links:

Adriano Falcioni

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