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CD reviews

The North German organ school

[I] Georg Dietrich LEYDING, Andreas KNELLER, Christian GEIST: "Complete Organ Music"
Manuel Tomadin, organ
rec: Oct 22 - 23, 2012, Pinerolo (TO), Chiesa parrocchiale di Nostra Signora di Fatima
Brilliant Classics - 94716 (© 2013) (75'02")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (BWV 1128); Christian GEIST (c1650-1711): Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr; Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir; Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ; Andreas KNELLER (1649-1724): Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Prelude in d minor; Prelude in F; Prelude in G; Georg Dietrich LEYDING (1664-1710): Prelude in C; Prelude in E flat (transposed to F); Prelude in B flat; Von Gott will ich nicht lassen; Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern

[II] Nicolaus BRUHNS, Nicolaus HASSE: "Complete Organ Works"
Manuel Tomadin, organ
rec: April 7, 2013, Pinerolo (TO), Chiesa parrocchiale di Nostra Signora di Fatima
Dynamic - CDS 7685 (© 2013) (75'02")
Liner-notes: E/I
Cover & track-list
Scores Bruhns

Nicolaus BRUHNS (1665-1697): Adagio in D (transposed to C); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland; Prelude in e minor (transposed to d minor); Prelude in G; Prelude in g minor; Nicolaus HASSE (c1617-1672): Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (a 2 clav. et ped.); Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (in organo pleno); Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott

Music by composers from the so-called North German organ school seems to fascinate organists of our time. Discs featuring this repertoire appear regularly, and, especially in recent years, a remarkable number of such recordings have been released. The German organist Friedhelm Flamme is recording what should be the complete output of organ composers from this region for CPO. The present discs shed light on five representatives of the North German organ school from two different generations. They have in common that their oeuvre is very small. Nicolaus Bruhns and Christian Geist are fairly well-known, but the other three are largely unknown quantities, except probably to organ aficionados.

Christian Geist is mainly known for his sacred vocal works. He was born in Güstrow where his father was Kantor. Before his 20th birthday he was already active as a bass singer at the court of Copenhagen. The next year he went to Stockholm where he worked at the Swedish court under Gustav Düben. This explains that most of his works have been included in the so-called Düben collection which is now preserved at Uppsala University. He later became organist at the German Church in Göteborg but soon returned to Copenhagen where he worked as organist in several churches. The three chorale arrangements played here are the only organ pieces from his pen which have come down to us, although their authenticity is doubtful, according to New Grove. There these pieces are also listed with Danish titles. As I have no access to the scores I don't know whether they were originally in Damish or in German. In all three the cantus firmus is ornamented.

Andreas Kneller was born in Lübeck and became first organist in Hanover. In 1685 he moved to Hamburg where he worked as organist of the Petrikirche and married the daughter of Johann Adam Reincken. The three preludes and fugues reflect the stylus phantasticus with its sequences of contrasting sections. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is a series of eight chorale variations in which the chorale melody is treated in different ways. There is some chromaticism and once again Sweelinck's influence makes itself felt in the echo effects.

Georg Dietrich Leyding was from Bücken, near Nienburg, southeast of Bremen. He went to Brunswick to study with the organist Jacob Bölsche and visited Hamburg and Lübeck to receive lesssons from Reincken and Buxtehude respectively. When his former teacher Bölsche fell ill he acted as his deputy and succeeded him after his death. In the late 1680s he received composition lessons from Johann Theile. Five organ works from his pen have survived. Leyding is the most interesting of the composers on this disc. His preludes are brilliant pieces with virtuosic pedal parts. The Prelude in C opens with a pedal solo; the Prelude in B flat opens with a statement on the full organ which is followed by another brilliant pedal solo. In a later episode the two hands play extended figurations over a long pedal point. Von Gott will ich nicht lassen is a sequence of six arrangements; in the last variation the cantus firmus is in the pedal, with slight ornamentation, over which the two hands play virtuosic figurations. It is suggested that Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern may be incomplete and originally have been part of a larger chorale fantasia. Again we find echo effects here, and in the closing episode Tomadin makes use of the Cimbelstern which was a popular device in North German organs.

The disc ends with a chorale fantasia which has now been acknowledged as a work from Johann Sebastian Bach's pen and included in the Schmieder catalogue. The manuscript is dated around 1710; that is the time Bach incorporated all kinds of influences in his keyboard works, among them those of the North German organ school. Especially the coda with its improvisatory nature points in that direction.

The second disc can be considered a kind of sequel to the Brilliant Classics disc.
The name Hasse is first and foremost associated with the 18th-century opera composer Johann Adolph Hasse. He was a descendant of Nicolaus' uncle Friedrich, brother of his father Peter. The latter was appointed as organist of the Marienkirche in Lübeck, a post which was later occupied by Dietrich Buxtehude. Only three of his compositions have been preserved, and as they are found in a manuscript with pieces by Sweelinck and some of his pupils, it is presumed that he was also one of them. Nicolaus was born in Lübeck and received his first lessons from his father. There is no further information about his formative years. In 1642 he became organist of the Marienkirche in Rostock. He retired in 1671, one year before his death.

Hasse left a considerable number of sacred songs, which show the influence of the contemporary Italian style. He also wrote occasional works and a collection of instrumental pieces, the majority of them in the form of suites. Only four organ works have come down to us, all based on chorales. In Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr the cantus firmus, sometimes embellished, moves back and forth between two manuals. There are two arrangements of the chorale Jesus Christus, unser Heiland. One is pro organo pleno. Here the melody is first placed in the upper voice, then in the tenor and lastly in the bass. The second has the form of a chorale fantasia, with the indication 'for two manuals and pedal'. The embellished chorale melody is broken up in fragments, and Hasse adds free melodic material, echo effects and coloratura. The fourth piece, Komm, heiliger Geist, Herre Gott, is again a chorale fantasia of large proportions, comprising 292 bars. The chorale melody moves through various voices, with the exception of the pedal.

Nicolaus Bruhns is of a later generation. He came from a musical family: his grandfather was a professional lutenist, whose three sons all made a career in music. Nicolaus's father Paul was the second and was educated as an organist; he may have been a pupil of Franz Tunder. He became organist in Schwabstedt where Nicolaus was born. He not only learnt to play the organ but also the violin and the viola da gamba. To that end his father sent him to his brother Peter in Lübeck, a professional string player. He developed into one of the great violin virtuosos of his time and worked in this capacity for a couple of years at the court in Copenhagen. In Lübeck his organ teacher was Buxtehude who considered him his favourite pupil. 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.

For a long time Bruhns's entire organ oeuvre comprised just five pieces. Only fairly recently a sixth 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 four preludes attest to the brilliance of the North German organ school. They include two hallmarks of this style. The first is the stylus phantasticus which had its origin in the seconda prattica as it emerged in Italy in the early 17th century. Its declamatory and improvisatory features were effectively translated to the organ by German organists of that time. This went hand in hand with the habit of improvising which was the main task of organists, and which explains why so few compositions have come down to us. In the four preludes and the chorale fantasia we see the result of the stylus phantasticus. The preludes consist of various sections, beginning with a toccata-like episode in improvistory style, followed by a fugue, and closing with a short brilliant toccata-like passage. In the longer preludes this texture is extended by another toccata-and-fugue pair. The long Toccata in e minor is one of Bruhns' most famous pieces and reflects his skills, not only as an organist, but also as a violinist as it includes passages which seem quite violinistic. In the chorale fantasia Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland the four lines of the chorale are treated differently every time, again attesting to the preference for the contrast of the North German organ school. The second feature of this style is the brilliance of the pedal parts. Bruhns' works include some highly virtuosic pedal solos and episodes for double pedal. The influence of Sweelinck is notable by the inclusion of echo passages.

Manuel Tomadin is an Italian organist who specializes in early music. He plays an organ, built by the Italian firm Dell'Orto & Lanzini, which is modelled after organs by Arp Schnitger (1648-1719), one of the most famous organ builders of northern Germany. It is pre-eminently suited to this repertoire, also because of its tuning: fifth-comma mean tone (after the restored Schnitger organ in Norden). The temperament leads to some pieces being transposed to a different key as indicated in the track-list. That is no speciality of Tomadin; this practice was also followed by Bernard Foccroulle who recorded Bruhns' works on the original organ in Norden. In the liner-notes to his recording Jérôme Lejeune writes: "[The] tuning adopted when the organ was restored made the performance of certain keys, E minor for example, very difficult. The answer was, according to the theories of modern specialists, to use transpositions, and in this case, the work concerned has been transposed into D minor; this theory has its basis in the existence of several manuscripts of the period, in which the composers themselves, J.S. Bach included, made transposed versions of their own works".

Tomadin delivers very good performances. His articulation is well suited to bring out the sudden pauses which are a feature of this repertoire. That is also due to the acoustic which seems to be not too reverberant. The improvisatory aspects are essential here, and Tomadin has realises them very well. I have only one reservation: in some pieces there is too much change of registration. This music includes enough contrast by itself and it is not necessary to emphasize this with such changes. However, that is a relatively minor issue here. The recording is excellent. The booklets includes useful information about the music, but unfortunately the Dynamic disc omits a table of the stops used in each piece.

These two discs impressively demonstrate the features and the brilliance of the North German organ school.

Johan van Veen (© 2015)

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