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CD reviews

Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1595 - 1665): "Keyboard Music"

Joseph Rassam, organa, harpsichordb, virginalsc

rec: April 11 - 13, & Sept 12 - 14, 2016, Amilly (Loiret, F), Eglise Saint-Martin
Brilliant Classics - 95427 (2 CDs) (© 2017) (2.11'00")
Liner-notes: E; lyrics - translations
Cover & track-list

Allemand & Double in c minorb; Ballett & Variatio in Fb; Benedicam Domino (after Hieroymus Praetorius)b; Betrübet ist zu dieser Fristc; Canzon in Fb; Canzon in Ga; Christ lag in Todesbandena; Confitemini Domino (after Orlandus Lassus)a; Courant & Variatio in d minor (after Nicolas La Grotte)b; Courant & 2 Variations in a minorb; Englische Mascarada oder Juden Tanztb; Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gotta; Fantasia in d minora; Fantasia in Gb; Französischer Allemandb; Fugue in d minorb; Galliarda & Variatio in d minorb; Jesu, wollst uns weisen (after Giovanni Gastoldi)c; Jesus Christus, unser Heilanda; Mascarata & Variatio in Gc; Mensch, willst du leben seliglicha; Mio cor, se vera sei salamandra (after Felice Anerio)c; Omnia quae fecisti nobis Domine (after Orlandus Lassus)c; Pavana Lachrymae (after John Dowland)c; Praeambulum in Cc; Praeambulum in d minorb; Praeambulum in e minora; Praeambulum in Ga; Praeambulum in g minora; Toccata in Cb; Toccata in Ga; Vater unser im Himmelreicha; Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich hera

Heinrich Scheidemann is considered the founder of what is generally known as the North German organ school. He was born in Wöhrden in Holstein, where his father David was organist. Around 1604 the family moved to Hamburg, where David was appointed organist of St Katharinen. From 1611 to 1614 Heinrich studied with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck in Amsterdam. The latter dedicated a canon to his pupil, when Scheidemann returned home. He took over his father's position in 1629 at the latest; from that it is assumed that 1629 was also the year his father died. Heinrich held this position until 1663, when he died of the plague.

Only recently I reviewed a disc with organ works, played by Friedhelm Flamme. He confined himself to a number of free works, such as praeludia, praeambula, fugues and toccatas. Such pieces are also included in the present twofer, but here Joseph Rassam offers a wider choice, and not only plays organ works, but also pieces for the harpsichord.

It is not easy to establish the exact number of pieces from Scheidemann's pen. The work-list in New Grove includes various compositions under the header "anon., probably by Scheidemann". The problem is - as is so often the case with keyboard music - that next to nothing has come down to us in autographs. We have to rely on copies made by his pupils or his colleagues, and one cannot exclude that some pieces attributed to Scheidemann are in fact written by one of those copyists.

The first disc is entirely devoted to organ works. The main genres are represented. Pieces like the Praeambulum in e minor, the Toccata in G and the Fantasia in d minor have their roots in the practice of improvisation, which was one of the main skills of organists of that time. These also show the influence of the Italian stylus phantasticus, one of the hallmarks of the North German organ school. In particular the toccatas and fantasias are often technically brilliant, such as here the Toccata in G, which includes virtuosic passagework.

The second large category of organ music consists of pieces based on hymns. These were the result of Martin Luther's ideal of congregational singing. Chorale preludes and arrangements were written to prepare the congregation for the hymn to be sung. Such pieces come in various shapes. In the oeuvre of Scheidemann we find single arrangements of chorales, such as Vater unser im Himmelreich - one of four such arrangements - but also sets of variations, each of which is called versus. Examples are Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott, which comprises two variations, and Vom Himmel hoch da komm ich her, which consists of four. The first disc ends with a large-scale chorale fantasia, a speciality of the North German organ school. In Jesus Christus, unser Heiland the various lines of the chorale are treated individually. This explains why such pieces are mostly quite long, as is the case here. In chorale fantasias as well as chorale arrangements and preludes, the hymn melody - the cantus firmus - is treated in different ways. It can be placed in various voices, from soprano to bass, and can move from one voice to the other within a single piece. Sometimes the chorale melody is played unaltered, especially in the first section, when its melody has to be exposed as clearly as possible, but often it is ornamented, either slightly or in a more elaborate way.

The third category comprises intabulations of vocal works. In Scheidemann's oeuvre we find several of such pieces, mostly transcriptions of motets by late 16th-century composers, such as Orlandus Lassus and Hieronymus Praetorius. Confitemini Domino is an arrangement of a motet by Lassus. It is divided into two partes, as was often the case with late-renaissance motets.

A notable feature of the North German organ school is the use of the echo technique. This was a popular device across Europe, but in the case of the North German organ school it documents the influence of Sweelinck. It is used, for instance, in the versus 2 of Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott and in the Fantasia in d minor.

It is also through Sweelinck that the style of the English virginalists made its appearance in Germany. That manifests itself especially on the second disc which is devoted to harpsichord works. That is to say, pieces which can be played at the harpsichord. It was highly uncommon at the time to specifically indicate for what kind of keyboard a piece was intended. Basically it was up to the performer whether a piece was played on the organ or on a strung keyboard, such as the harpsichord, the virginals or the clavichord. Obviously pieces with a pedal part were intended for the organ, although in some cases the lowest part can be performed with the left hand on the manual. The fact that a piece has a sacred subject does not really matter. In the oeuvre of Georg Böhm and Bach we find chorale partitas for manuals only, which seem to be intended for domestic performance.

That is also the case here. Jesu, wollst uns weisen is one of Scheidemann's best-known pieces, and is often played at the organ. Joseph Rassam decided to perform it at the virginals, and it works very well that way. That is also due to the fact that this hymn is an arrangement of a dance song by the Italian composer Giovanni Gastoldi. Secular pieces were often sources of inspiration for keyboard composers. Mio cor, se vera sei salamandra is an arrangement of a madrigal by Felice Anerio. I already mentioned that Scheidemann transcribed motets for organ. It is interesting that Rassam decided to play several of such transcriptions on different instruments. A motet by Lassus was played at the organ, and on the second disc we hear two further motet transcriptions: Omnia quae fecisti nobis Domine is a motet by Lassus, played here on the virginals, whereas Benedicam Domino is from the pen of Hieronymus Praetorius, himself an organist, but also a composer of vocal music; this piece is performed at the harpsichord.

Foreign influences were quite common at the time, and that is reflected by titles as Französischer Allemand and Englische Mascarada oder Juden Tanzt. The Courant & Variatio in d minor is based on a lute piece by the French composer Nicolas La Grotte. Scheidemann was also one of many who arranged John Dowland's famous Pavana Lachrymae. Betrübest ist zu dieser Frist is based on a song which was quite popular in the Low Countries, but whose tune is English. This set of three variations is one of several pieces which show the influence of the English virginalists.

Scheidemann is not as well represented on disc as one may expect on the basis of his importance as a key figure in the North German organ school and in the development of keyboard music in the northern part of Europe. Therefore this production is of great importance. The second disc is of particular value, as very few recordings pay attention to this part of Scheidemann's oeuvre. One of these is a disc which was released on the Et'cetera label, recorded by Pieter Dirksen. That disc includes several items which also appear on the present disc. It is nice that Rassam uses both a harpsichord and a virginal. The harpsichord is an anonymous French instrument from the 1650s, whose decorative rose bears the initials "CLF". The virginals were built by Alain Anselm in 1974 after a Jean Couchet of 1650, preserved in Antwerp. Both instruments are in meantone temperament.

The organ is a modern instrument, but based on instruments in the Netherlands and Northern Germany from the 16th and 17th centuries. In 2010 it was inaugurated by the late Gustav Leonhardt. With its 27 independent stops across three manuals and pedalboard it is a pretty large instrument, but rather modest if we compare it with the instrument Scheidemann had at his disposal: it had 53 stops over four manuals and a pedalboard. The organs in Northern Germany were the largest and most brilliant instruments of Europe. Even so, the organ Joseph Rassam plays has enough possibilities to bring out the qualities of Scheidemann's music.

Rassam is an excellent interpreter who shows a perfect feeling for the style of Scheidemann and his time. His performances have much flair - the thing I miss a little in Flamme's interpretations. In the free pieces their origins in the improvisation practice comes off very well. The melody in the chorale-based items is always clearly audible, thanks to an effective choice of registers. The tempi are very satisfying and have much logic. That goes in particular for the harpsichord pieces, where performers are always tempted to show off.

In short, this is a most enjoyable release and an ideal introduction to the art of Heinrich Scheidemann.

Johan van Veen (© 2018)

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