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Johann Sebastian BACH & Dieterich BUXTEHUDE: "December 1705"

Manuel Tomadin, organ

rec: April 28 - 29, 2019, Groningen (NL), Martinikerk
Brilliant Classics - 95941 (© 2021) (72'04")
Liner-notes: E
Cover, track-list & booklet
Scores JS Bach
Scores Buxtehude

Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Fugue in C (BuxWV 174); Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BuxWV 188); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BuxWV 211) Passacaglia in d minor (BuxWV 161); Prelude in C (BuxWV 137); Toccata in d minor (BuxWV 155); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Fantasia in G (BWV 571); Fugue à la gigue in G (BWV 577); Prelude in C (BWV 566); Prelude and fugue in a minor (BWV 551); Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV 762); Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (BWV 1128)

No genius falls from heaven, and that includes Johann Sebastian Bach. Like any normal human being, he had to learn through study and experience. In his early years he studied the music of past masters and he continued to do so during his career, going back as far as Palestrina, one of the main composers of the 16th century. An important source of inspiration, in particular in the realm of keyboard music, was the North German organ school. It came into existence in the early 17th century, and received substantial incentives from Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck of Amsterdam. Two of the last representatives of this school were still alive when Bach was in his twenties: Johann Adam Reincken and Dieterich Buxtehude. In order to hear the latter Bach travelled to Lübeck, where the master was organist of the Marienkirche. That was in 1705, which explains the title of the disc under review here. It is not the year the organ works Manuel Tomadin recorded, were written.

Whether Bach and Buxtehude met personally is not known for sure. Some scholars assume that Bach participated in performances of the large-scale concerts which took place in Lübeck under the title of Abendmusik. In that case he may have played the violin or the harpsichord. Whatever is the case, he overstretched by far the time his superiors - at the time he was organist of the Bonifatiuskirche in Arnstadt - had allowed him to be absent, which is a token of his great appreciation of what he heard in Lübeck. It clearly had a lasting influence on his development as a composer of keyboard music. That influence comes to the fore, for instance, in the seven toccatas for harpsichord. The present disc focuses on organ works, which bear several traces of the style of the North German organ school.

That school had incorporated several influences itself. Rooted in the contrapuntal tradition of Germany, it came under the influence of the stylus phantasticus, which manifested itself in particular in free forms like toccata and prelude. The toccata of North German organ composers had a typical form: three free episodes alternated with two fugal passages. The fugue was not a separate entity, but a fully integrated part of the whole. The toccata and the prelude by Buxtehude that are performed here, are perfect examples. As far as Bach is concerned, the last item in the programme, the Prelude in C (BWV 566), is entirely modelled after the North German toccata.

These free works often include passages for pedal solo, and here we notice another feature of the North German organ school: the brilliance of the pedal playing by the organists of the time. They were great virtuosos, and the organs in North Germany were the largest in Europe, always including a pedalboard, which was frequently used in free works as well as in pieces based on chorales. The passages for pedal solo often display the typical features of the stylus phantasticus: technical brilliance and strong and often sudden contrasts.

Another influence which contributed to the nature of the North German organ school was that which came from the English virginalists. They were famous for their variation technique, and it was Sweelinck who transmitted that technique to North Germany through his pupils. Several of the main representatives of the North German organ school were among them, such as Heinrich Scheidemann, who is often considered the founder of that school. It resulted in a large compendium of chorale-based works, known as chorale preludes, chorale variations and chorale fantasias. Notable is the great variety in the way the chorale melodies are treated. Sometimes it is included unchanged, but often also with many ornamentations and diminutions, on the brink of becoming hardly recognizable. This is also one of the features of Bach's many chorale-based works. The two pieces of this kind included here are very different. Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält is a brilliant example of the freedom in which Bach sometimes treated a chorale.

Manuel Tomadin has constructed a nice and attractive programme in which free and chorale-based works are mixed. In Buxtehude's case he adds his famous Passacaglia, in the Bach part of the programme he includes one of his lesser-known pieces, the Fugue à la gigue. It is the only piece on this disc whose performance is not entirely satisfying. Tomadin has got the tempo right, but in the acoustical circumstances the articulation is not clear enough. It lacks transparency, and that seems due to the registration, which is a bit too thick. A more modest and 'lighter' registration had resulted in a more convincing performance. Otherwise I have nothing but praise for Tomadin's interpretations. Buxtehude's Prelude in C is brilliantly played and in the Bach part I was especially impressed by the Prelude BWV 566 in the same key. For his recording he opted for one of the most famous instruments of the master organ maker Arp Schnitger, the one he built in 1691 in the Martinikerk in Groningen. That is an instrument that has inspired so many performers, and Tomadin is obviously one of them.

The combination of programme, performance and organ makes this disc a winner.

Johan van Veen (© 2022)

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