musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Martin RADECK, Johann STEFFENS, Johann Nikolaus HANFF: "Complete Organ Works"

Friedhelm Flamme, organ

rec: Sept 22 - 23, 2006, Bockhorn, Kirche St. Cosmas und St. Damian
CPO - 777 271-2 (© 2007) (68'51")

Arnold Matthias BRUNCKHORST (c1670-1725): Praeludium in e minor; Daniel ERICH (1649-1712): Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ; Christum wir sollen loben schon; Es ist das Heil uns kommen her; Johann Nicolaus HANFF (1664-1711/12): Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein; Auf meinen lieben Gott; Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott; Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (I); Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott (II); Helft mir Gott's Güte preisen; Wär Gott nicht mit uns diese Zeit; Martin RADECK (c160-1684): Canzona in D; Fugue in e minor; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (I); Jesus Christus, unser Heiland (II); Praeambulum in d minor; Christian RITTER (c1645-c1725): Sonatina in d minor; Johann STEFFENS (1560-1616): Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein; Fantasia in a minor; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland; Veni redemptor gentium

In the 17th century North Germany developed into one of Europe's centres of organ playing. There was much employment for organists as there were many - often large - churches in towns and villages, and many of them had organs built by the best organ builders of the time. Brilliant builders and brilliant organists mutually influenced each other. The virtuosity of the organist in the region required the best instruments and the often innovative organ building inspired organists to develop their skills.

The result was the emergence of what today is called the 'North-German organ school'. The most famous representative of that school is Dietrich Buxtehude, but he only is the top of the iceberg. Many organists are forgotten today, in particular those who left no compositions to evidence their art. And those whose names we do know have often left only a handful of pieces as this disc shows. It is one of a series with what is said to be the complete organ works of the North-German organ school. So far seven discs have been released.

There are two reasons why we know so few organ works of most representatives of the North-German organ school. First of all, a number of pieces must have been lost in the course of history. Secondly, and in this case more importantly, organ music was almost never printed or even written down. Organists were supposed to improvise during services, and not to play music written by someone else. The organ music which has come down to us circulated in manuscript. It was either written down from memory by someone who heard an organist play or by the organist himself as teaching material. Buxtehude is the only composer of the North-German organ school for whom a substantial number of compositions have survived.

The organ music which was written in this region is generally characterised with the term stylus phantasticus. In 1650 the theorist Athanasius Kircher described this style as "the most free and unrestrained method of composing; it is bound to nothing, neither to words nor to a melodic subject; it was instituted to display genius and to teach the hidden design of harmony and the ingenious composition of harmonic phrases and fugues". This results in compositions which contain sequences of strongly contrasting sections in which one idea suddenly makes way for another. Obviously free forms like toccata and prelude are most suitable to practice this style. But this disc shows that pieces which are based on hymn tunes also bear the traces of that style. The hymns invited the composers to express the Affekte of the texts in their music.

Listening to this disc one is struck by the variety of compositional techniques these composers used in their chorale-based works. The two arrangements of the communion hymn Jesus Christus, unser Heiland by Martin Radeck bear witness to that. The first is written in the form of a chorale motet in four sections in each of which one line is elaborated. The chorale melody appears at the end of every section in the descant. The second arrangement is very different. The chorale melody appears almost unornamented in all five episodes, twice in the descant, and one time each in alto, tenor and bass.

Dietrich Buxtehude wasn't only the main representative of the North-German organ school, he also had considerable influence on others, even those who - as far as we know - were never his pupils. The best example is Johann Nicolaus Hanff, whose seven chorale arrangements all have the hymn melody as an ornamented cantus firmus in the upper part. The same is true for Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ by Daniel Erich. He seems to have been from Lübeck where Buxtehude worked as organist and he was probably a pupil of Buxtehude. In Es ist das Heil uns kommen her the chorale melody is broken up into small segments, another technique used in chorale arrangements.

In most free forms we find fugal episodes, for instance in the Praeambulum in d minor by Martin Radeck and in the Praeludium in e minor by Arnold Matthias Brunckhorst. The former's Canzona in D begins and ends with a fugal section. And the Sonatina in d minor by Christian Ritter and the Fantasia in a minor by Johann Steffens also contain fugal episodes.

All composers in this programme were active as organists in various cities in northern Germany, and some also worked for a number of years in Stockholm and Copenhagen. Organists like them were held in high esteem in their time, and this disc impressively shows why.

Friedhelm Flamme is a skilful organist who has a good understanding of this particular kind of music, and he delivers good performances in the tradition of historical performance practice. But as much as I have enjoyed his interpretations, the character of this repertoire isn't fully explored. Flamme should have allowed himself more freedom, and also taken more time, for instance for the short pauses within pieces. I also think his tempi are a bit on the fast side. The chorale arrangements by Hanff are rather well-known and often played, and I have heard more captivating performances. A slower tempo also allows for some variety in the way the ornaments are played.

Obviously the choice of organ is important in this kind of repertoire. This one was built by Christian Vater in 1721/22. It was modernised in the 19th century but restored to its original state in 1982/83. What is particularly important is its tuning which is described as "unequal temperament". It makes the dissonants in this music clearly audible, for instance in Brunckhorst's Praeludium in e minor.

Despite my critical remarks this disc is most welcome, in particular as it contains several pieces which are hardly known.

Johan van Veen (© 2010)

CD Reviews