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Johann Ludwig KREBS (1713 - 1780): Keyboard Works

[I] "Der einzige Krebs im Bache" - Organ Works
Annette Unternährer-Gfeller, organ; Thomas Unternährer, oboea
rec: Sept 24 - 26, 2014, Großengottern (Thuringia), St.-Walpurgis-Kirche
Genuin - GEN 16399 (© 2016) (74'04")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Fantasia in F (Krebs-WV 419); Fantasia in f minor (Krebs-WV 604)a; Fantasia sopra Jesus, meine Zuversicht (Krebs-WV 535); Freu dich sehr, o meine Seele (Krebs-WV 520); Jesu, meine Freude (Krebs-WV 502) [1]; Jesu, meine Freude (Krebs-WV 706)a; Meine Seel ermuntre dich (Krebs-WV 709)a; Prelude in C (Krebs-WV 414); Prelude in c minor (Krebs-WV 403); Sonata IV in D (Krebs-WV 835); Toccata (Prelude) and fugue in a minor (Krebs-WV 411); Trio in d minor (Krebs-WV 439); Trio in E flat (Krebs-WV 442); Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (Krebs-WV 545); Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (Krebs-WV 552); Wir glauben all an einen Gott (Krebs-WV 554)

[II] Clavier-Übung III
Jan von Busch, organ
rec: July 15 - 16, 2014, Warlitz (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), St. Trinitatiskirche
Audiomax - 706 1888-2 (© 2015) (78'34")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover & track-list

Sonata I in C (Krebs-WV 832); Sonata II in G (Krebs-WV 833); Sonata III in B flat (Krebs-WV 834); Sonata IV in D (Krebs-WV 835); Sonata V in F (Krebs-WV 836); Sonata VI in d minor (Krebs-WV 837) [2]; Sonatina I in a minor (Krebs-WV 801) [2]; Sonatina II in D (Krebs-WV 802) [2]; Sonatina III in c minor (Krebs-WV 803) [2]; Sonatina IV in B flat (Krebs-WV 804) [2]; Sonatina V in E (Krebs-WV 805) [2]; Sonatina VI in f minor (Krebs-WV 806) [2]

Sources: [1] Erste Lieferung der Clavier Ubung, bestehend in verschiedenen Vorspielen und Veraenderungen einiger Kirchen Gesaenge ..., n.d.; [2] Clavier-Übung, bestehend in sechs Sonatinen ... III. Theil, n.d.


In 2013 the birth of Johann Ludwig Krebs three hundred years ago was commemorated. This hasn't received much attention except in the east of Germany - Leipzig and Thuringia - where he studied and worked for most of his life. As a composer he is fairly well-known but almost exclusively for his organ works and his close ties to Bach. From the catalogue numbers in the track-list one may conclude that his oeuvre is quite large. It includes not only organ works but also pieces for stringed keyboard instruments, chamber and orchestral music as well as sacred vocal works. Hardly any of his contributions to the latter genres are available on disc.

Johann Ludwig Krebs was born in Buttelstedt where his father Tobias was organist; he was also his first music teacher. In 1726 he entered the Thomasschule where he became the favourite pupil of Johann Sebastian Bach. He sang as a treble in the choir and learnt to play the violin and the lute. After leaving the Thomasschule he studied law and philosophy at Leipzig University but remained close to Bach, assisting him at the Thomaskirche and playing the harpsichord in the Collegium Musicum. From 1737 to 1743 he acted as organist in Zwickau and moved to Zeitz in 1744. In 1750 he applied for the position of Thomaskantor after the death of Bach but was not elected. In 1755 he became organist at the court of Prince Friedrich of Gotha-Altenburg. Here he remained until his death, largely due - as Annette Unternährer-Gfeller suggests in her liner-notes - to the presence of an organ built by Heinrich Gottfried Trost which he loved "more than a father", as a contemporary wrote. The organ played here is from that same builder.

Bach's pupils held their teacher in high esteem and his influence is clearly discernible in their own oeuvre. However, few have been so close to the old Bach's style than Krebs. Several organ pieces are attributed to either Bach or Krebs, and sometimes it is hard to tell them apart. The Genuin disc fittingly starts with the Toccata and fugue in a minor which shows Bach's influence. The toccata takes the thematic material from Bach's Toccata in F (BWV 540) and the fugue is based on his Fugue in e minor (BWV 548,2). Wir glauben all an einen Gott could easily pass for a chorale arrangement by Bach. The Fantasia sopra Jesus, meine Zuversicht then is quite different and much more reflects the style of the post-baroque era, the time of the Empfindsamkeit and the galant idiom. The organ trios are also modern in comparison to some free organ works and chorale-based compositions.

We find the same contrasts in the programme which Jan von Busch recorded. He opens with a cycle of six Sonatinas, which Krebs published under the title of Clavier-Übung, the third collection from his pen with this title. This very title shows his reverence for his former teacher. It is not known when it was published but as Krebs called himself 'organist of the Castle Church of Holy Trinity in Zeitz' these Sonatinas must have been written between 1744 and 1756. Stylistically they show some similarity with Bach's six Trio sonatas (BWV 525-530). In contrast the six Sonatas which Von Busch also recorded - and from which Annette Unternährer-Gfeller selected the Sonata IV in D - are of a different style and could be compared with the organ sonatas by Bach's second son Carl Philipp Emanuel. Here we find the traces of the galant idiom and in the slow movements the kind of expression which is characteristic of the post-baroque era. There is also a difference in substance. According to the title page the Sonatinas are aimed at Liebhaber (amateurs) and beginners. This explains why they are rather short - the two longest take a little over six minutes in Von Busch's recording - and technically uncomplicated. The Sonatas are more demanding and include some virtuosity. They are undated and have been preserved in the archive of the Berlin Singakademie. As this was the only source these pieces have only become available after the return of this archive from Ukraine to Berlin in 2001.

The title page doesn't mention for what kind of keyboard instrument the Sonatina were intended. But the fact that they were written for amateurs and require only manuals points in the direction of a stringed keyboard. That doesn't mean that they can't be performed on a smaller organ. There was no watershed between those instruments at the time. On the title page of the first volume of his Clavier-Übung - comprising chorale preludes and arrangements - Krebs mentions both the organ and the (stringed) keyboard (Clavier) as alternatives. This suggests that these these pieces were first and foremost intended for domestic performance, to be played on harpsichord, clavichord or chamber organ. It comprises thirteen chorales each of which is represented in three different forms. The first is a prelude, the second a chorale arrangement in which the cantus firmus is ornamented, and the third a chorale setting with a figured bass. From this collection Annette Unternährer-Gfeller selected Jesu, meine Freude.

Vom Himmel hoch is another chorale arrangement for two manuals without pedal. It is based on a ritornello which is in the bass with the chorale melody in the right hand. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is for two manuals and pedal; the ritornello is in the upper part and the chorale melody unaltered in the tenor. Among the chorale-based compositions the two pieces with an obbligato part for oboe are especially noteworthy. They belong to a genre which became quite popular around the mid-18th century. The first composer who published pieces for organ with oboe was Georg Friedrich Kauffmann (1679-1735). Krebs was one of the main exponents of this genre, alongside Gottfried August Homilius, another Bach pupil. Such pieces were clearly intended for a performance with a large organ which would allow the oboe - or another instrument, such as the transverse flute or the trumpet - to be treated like a stop of the organ. Because of that the two chorale arrangements here are much more satisfying than comparable pieces on a recent disc by the ensemble Austral Harmony.

We don't always know what was a composer's favourite organ and what is the most ideal instrument for the performance of his works. That is different here. The fact that Annette Unternährer-Gfeller plays an instrument by Trost - whose organ in the castle church in Altenburg Krebs loved so much - lends her performances a strong amount of authenticity, even though it is somewhat smaller and younger. The acoustic of the St. Walpurgis-Kirche in Großengottern (Thuringia) is less than ideal, though; I would have liked a bit more reverberation. On the other hand, it results in a clarity of the various lines in these polyphonic pieces which would probably get lost in a more reverberant church. That clarity is also the effect of Annette Unternährer-Gfeller's playing, and especially her good articulation and fine registration. Sometimes I would have liked a little more freedom in her playing, for instance in the toccata which opens the programme. Thomas Unternährer produces a beautiful tone on his baroque oboe and the balance between the two instruments is just right.

Jan von Busch plays an instrument which was built by Johann Georg Stein (1712-1785) whose roots were in Thuringia and later established his workshop in Lüneburg. The organ in the St. Trinitatiskirche in Warlitz (Mecklenburg-Vorpommern) is only one of two extant Stein organs and dates from 1769/70. What makes this organ unique is the fact that it didn't undergo any stylistic 'adjustments' during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1860s an attached pedal was added but the disposition is the same as in the 18th century and the pipes were never revoiced. That makes it pretty much the ideal instrument for this repertoire. It has only nine stops two of which are divided into bass and treble. "The registrations on this recording attempt to present the instrument comprehensively in its full multifacetedness", Jan von Busch writes in the booklet. As a result this disc not only sheds light on a lesser-known part of Krebs' oeuvre but also presents a portrait of a remarkable historical organ. Jan von Busch delivers a lively and engaging interpretation of the Sonatas and Sonatinas.

Krebs' organ oeuvre is available in several complete recordings. The German organist Felix Friedrich is responsible for one of them. He is a Krebs expert, wrote his biography and put together a catalogue of his works. However, a series of eleven discs will be a bit too much for some. They should investigate the Genuin disc which offers an excellent opportunity to get to know Krebs's organ oeuvre. It is nice that several genres in his keyboard output are represented.

Johan van Veen (© 2016)

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