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CD reviews

"Arp Schnitger and the Hamburg Organ Tradition"

Harald Vogel, organ

rec: Sept 27 - 28, 2015, Hamburg, St. Jacobi
MDG - 914 2125-6 (© 2019) (58'43")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Dieterich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Praeludium ex C (BuxWV 137); Joachim DECKER (c1565-1611): Vater unser im Himmelreich, chorale setting; Hieronymus PRAETORIUS (1560-1629): Hymnus Te lucis ante terminum (1. Versus; 2. Versus); Jacob PRAETORIUS (1586-1651): Vater unser im Himmelreich; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (1595-1663): Praeambulum ex C (WV 30); Praeambulum ex d (WV 35); Matthias WECKMANN (1616-1674): Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeiet (1. Versus)
Presentation of the stops of the organ (improvisations)

The perhaps most famous German organ maker in history is Arp Schnitger (1648-1719). His firm, after his death continued by two of his sons, was one of the most important in northern Europe, and built more than 170 instruments. Most of those which have survived, can be found in Germany and in the Netherlands.

He learned joinery from his father, also named Arp, and in 1666 was apprenticed to his uncle, Berendt Huss of Glückstadt in Holstein. After the latter's death in 1676 Schnitger fulfilled many of Huss's outstanding contracts. In 1682 Schnitger received the contract to build an organ for the Nikolaikirche in Hamburg, and moved his workshop from Stade to Hamburg. Schnitger's organs are famous for the quality of the reed stops, the ability of principals and reeds to blend together and the wide variety of flute stops. His organs carried on the north German tradition of independent divisions (Rückpositiv, Hauptwerk, Brustpositiv, Oberwerk, and Pedal), each with a fully-developed choir of principals, reeds, and flutes.

The present disc portrays one of Schnitger's most important extant instruments, built between 1689 and 1693 in the St. Jacobi church in Hamburg. Unfortunately, the booklet omits any information about the organ's history. Schnitger did not build an entirely new organ, but included material from the instrument as built by Hans Scherer the elder (1588-92) and Gottfried Fritsche (1635/36). The latter was responsible for the expension of the keyboard range. Under his hands the organ turned from a renaissance to a baroque instrument. In its present state the organ also includes registers added by Johann Jakob Lehnert (1761) and Jürgen Ahrend (1993). It comprises four manuals and pedal, with 60 stops. Its pitch is a=495 Hz, its tuning modified meantone (1/5 syntonic comma). This makes it pre-eminently suited for the performance of repertoire from the north German organ school of the 17th century.

The programme includes pieces by the earliest as well as the latest representatives of that school. One of the earliest is Hieronymus Praetorius, a member of a dynasty of organists who took an important place in northern Germany. The largest part of Hieronymus's extant oeuvre consists of vocal music for the liturgy. The work-list in New Grove does not include the hymn Te lucis ante terminum; it mentions some anonymous works, "possibly by Praetorius". Is this one of them? It seems that it is not performed complete here. The second verse specifically requires to be played on two manuals.

Whereas this work may be written for the alternatim practice, the chorale variations by Hieronymus's son Jacob on Luther's versification of the Lord's prayer, Vater unser im Himmelreich, pays tribute to the increasing importance of the hymn in the vernacular. Whether this kind of variations were actually used during service, is hard to say. They could well be part of the educational material Praetorius created for his pupils. He was from 1603 until his death organist of St Peter's in Hamburg. The seven versu have different specifications, such as manualiter a 4 (1. Versus), pedaliter (4. Versus) and a 3 auff 2 Clav. (three parts on two manuals; 5. Versus).

In 1655 Matthias Weckmann was appointed organist of St Jacobi church. In his youth he was a pupil of Heinrich Schütz in Dresden, and from 1633 of Jacob Praetorius and Heinrich Scheidemann in Hamburg. His chorale fantasia Gott sei gelobet und gebenedeiet comprises two versus; here we only get the first, which is a bit disappointing, especially as the playing time of this disc is rather short.

Heinrich Scheidemann was one of the main representatives of the north German organ school. His works have been disseminated in manuscript across Germany, which attests to his reputation. He himself was a pupil of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck of Amsterdam. He is represented with two preludes which reflect the highly-developed art of improvisation of the north German organists. Here we find the traces of the stylus fantasticus, which emerged in Italy in the early 17th century. Another example of a piece which had its roots in the practice of improviation is the Prelude in C by Dieterich Buxtehude, the latest representative of the north German organ school. He had a considerable influence on Johann Sebastian Bach who incorporated elements of this style in his own organ works.

The disc ends with a demonstration of the various stops and combinations of stops by Harald Vogel. That is certainly very interesting, but they are introduced by Vogel himself in German, and the sound quality of his introductions is not the best. Those who don't understand German are not served that well here. The track-list specifies the stops that are used, but that is only little compensation. This portrait of a major organ of the baroque era deserves a better presentation.

Harald Vogel is an expert in this repertoire and knows both the music and the instruments in the region inside out. That shows here: he delivers fully idiomatic performances. There is one aspect of his interpretation which is controversial among organists: the change of stops during play. This is only possible with the help of an assistant. The question is: did organists in the 17th century have such assistants? Vogel is convinced they did, but the late Ewald Kooiman was of a different opinion. Here the registration is frequently changed during play. Which view is historically correct I don't know. I would prefer less changes in registration. However, that does in no way diminish my appreciation for Vogel's performances, which convincingly demonstrate the brilliant qualities of this instrument.

Johan van Veen (© 2019)

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