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"Buxtehude / Bach: Organ Music for Christmas Time"

Siegbert Rampe, organ
rec: March 16, 2007, Tempe, AZ, Arizona State University (School of Music, Organ Hall)
MDG - 341 1511-2 (© 2008) (62'54")

Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BuxWV 189); In dulci jubilo (BuxWV 197); Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich (BuxWV 202); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BuxWV 211); Praeludium in D (BuxWV 139); Praeludium in g minor (BuxWV 163); Puer natus in Bethlehem (BuxWV 217); Toccata in d minor (BuxWV 155); Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (BuxWV 223); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Das alte Jahr vergangen ist (BWV 614); Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ (BWV 604); Herr Christ, der einig Gottes Sohn (BWV 601a); Lobt Gott, ihr Christen allzugleich (BWV 609); Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 599); Pìèce d'orgue in G (BWV 572a); Toccata and fugue in F (BWV 540/1a & 540/2); Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her (BWV 606)

This disc is not what it seems - that is what Siegbert Rampe starts his programme notes with. In contrast to what the title suggests it was not the artist's intention to compare the two giants of German organ music nor even to present music for Christmas. The main aim was to present an organ which didn't get the attention it in Mr Rampe's view deserves. As the organ is rather unknown it was probably for commercial reasons that the record company didn't give any attention to it on the cover. A disc with a title like this may indeed sell better than something like "Siegbert Rampe plays the organ at Arizona State University" - because that is what this disc is about.

The organ was built in 1992 in the School of Music at Arizona State University in Tempe near Phoenix by the firm of Paul Fritts & Co of Tacoma from the State of Washington. It is based on organs built by the famous German organ maker Arp Schnitger (1648-1719) from Hamburg. In his programme notes Rampe emphasizes that the organ is not a copy of Schnitger organs. "[The] pipes for the Hauptwerk (I) and the Unterwerk (II) are in the same case, behind which the pedal is situated. In order for the instrument to be suitable for both teaching and practising, the manuals were extended to encompass 58 notes, the pedalboard to 30 notes; there is a shift coupler (II/I) and two pedal couplers (I/Ped, II/Ped)." In addition the temperature is not the mean-tone used by Arp Schnitger, but "an unequal but well-tempered 'Bach-tuning' after Herbert Anton Kellner has been applied, allowing the performance even of works originally composed for instruments that used a particular mean-tone tuning system".

Taking this into consideration I find it hard to agree with Rampe that on this organ "the organ works of Buxtehude and Bach may be performed in the desert of Arizona and sound the way they did around 1700 (...)". He refers here to the stops of the organ, but the temperament is also very important to give an idea of what the composer had in mind. Bach's organ works may sound well on every organ, just as Bach's harpsichord works will not fail to appeal when played on a modern concert grand. But the full amount of expression can only be realised when an appropriate temperament is used.

This is not meant as criticism of the construction of this organ. Organ students in Europe have a great advantage over their American colleagues in that almost every country has at least some historical organs in their original state or carefully restored. From that perspective the availability of such an organ is a blessing which can't be appreciated enough. As far as the interpretation is concerned this organ is hardly the ideal instrument to bring out the true character of the organ works of Buxtehude and Bach.

The programme contains a number of organ chorales associated with Advent and Christmas, but also some free organ works. Two of these are first recordings. The disc opens with the Toccata in d minor (BuxWV 155) by Buxtehude which has been preserved incomplete. Rampe plays his own reconstruction of this toccata. The second is the Pièce d'orgue in G (BWV 572a), also known as Fantasia, by Bach. Rampe plays what is assumed to be the first version, in which the middle movement is written for manuals only; it is just at the end that a pedal point sets in. The commonly played version has the bass part transferred to the pedal to make it easier to play. Also a first version is presented of Bach's Toccata in F (BWV 540) which is ten bars shorter than the familiar version and whose pedal part doesn't extend d1 instead of going to f1. The toccata is followed by the fugue which is commonly played. Was this fugue already written when the first version of BWV 540 was composed? If not, isn't it a little illogical to combine the two?

The compositions based on chorales fare best in this recording. The tempi are satisfying, Rampe articulates well and has chosen appropriate registrations. But the free works encounter problems, in particular because of the fast tempi. The Toccata BWV 540/1a, for instance, could probably be played in the tempo Rampe has chosen, but not in these acoustic circumstances: too many notes are hardly noticeable. Even worse is the Pièce d'Orgue: Rampe uses the tempo indication of the first section - très vitement - as an excuse to play at breakneck speed. As a result there is no audible articulation and the structure of the piece is lost. The second section is marked as 'gayement', but that in itself is no reason to play it as fast as this. The Pièce d'Orgue is one of Bach's most fascinating organ works, but little of that comes out here. I don't understand why in Buxtehude's Prelude in g minor (BuxWV 163) the lowest part is played on the pedal, as this work is written for manuals only.

To sum up, I have mixed feelings about this recording. Buxtehude and Bach are not its subject but rather the organ. As a portrait of the organ this disc turns out well, but not all interpretations are convincing. I think it is mostly commendable to organ aficionados, who are interested in specific instruments and who also may be interested in the alternative versions of some organ works Rampe plays here.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

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