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Michael PRAETORIUS (1572 - 1621): "auch auff Orgeln - Un art de transcription, entre Renaissance et Baroque"

Christian Wegmann, tenora; William Dongois, cornettb; Jean-Charles Ablitzer, organ

rec: Sep 5 - 8, 2008, Frederiksborg Castle, Denmark
Musique et mémoire Productions - MMP 080901 (© 2008) (69'48")

Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehra [6,1/5]; Ballet de Monseigneur le prince de Brunswieg (CCXLVI)b [4]; Bransle double (VI)b [4]; Bransle de villages (XIV) [4]; Bransle gay (V)b [4]; Bransle simple de Novelle (II)b [4]; Courant sarabande (CIV)b [4]; Courante à 4 (CXXV) [4]; Courante à 5 (LXXII)b [4]; Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geista [6,2]; Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'meina [6]; O lux beata Trinitasa [3]; Passameze (CCLXXXIII) [4]; Pavane de Spaigne (XXX) [4]; Spagnoletta (XXXVIII) [4]; Volte (CCXXX)b [4]; Volte (CCXXXI) [4]; Wir gläuben all an einen Gotta [2]; Zu dir, von Herzensgrunde [6,1/5]

(Sources: [1] Michael Praetorius, Musae Sioniae, I, 1607; [2] Michael Praetorius, Musae Sioniae, V, 1607; [3] Michael Praetorius, Hymnodia Sionia, 1611; [4] Michael Praetorius, Terpsichore, musarum aoniarum quinta, 1612; [5] Johann Woltz, Nova Musices Organicae Tabulatura, 1617; [6] Michael Praetorius, Polyhymnia caduceatrix et panegyrica, 1619)

It makes sense to start this review with having a look at the organ. It is a unique instrument whose character puts it somewhere between the renaissance and the baroque. The music on the programme is all by Michael Praetorius, and that is no coincidence as he was closely associated with the construction of the organ. In 1594 he had entered the service of duke Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig and Lüneburg (1564-1613) and bishop of Halberstadt. In 1601 Esaias Compenius (1565-1617) was appointed as organ builder and in 1605 the duke asked him to build a new organ to be placed in a room in Hessen castle, halfway between Halberstadt and Wolfenbüttel. This instrument was a gift to the duke's second wife Elisabeth (1573-1625). Michael Praetorius was an organ expert himself and had become a close friend of Compenius. It is generally assumed he participated in the organ's design. The result was an organ whose pipework was made entirely of wood, whereas brass was used only for a part of the reed resonators.

The organ looks like a large cabinet. When the doors of the cabinet are closed over the Principals and the Pedal is retracted one wouldn't recognize this piece of furniture as an organ. Its place in a room of the castle suggests it wasn't just used for religious purposes but also to accompany instruments and support dancing. After the death of the duke the brother of his widow, King Christian IV of Denmark, obtained the instrument, and in 1617 the organ was transported to the chapel of Frederiksborg Castle, the Danish royal palace, where it is still situated. Over the years it has remained pretty much in its original state, and in the 1980's it was carefully restored to its full glory. And that is how it sounds on this disc.

In his programme notes Jean-Charles Ablitzer asks: "What is to be the musical approach to such an instrument?" He mentions the fact that, although everyone agrees that the design and construction of the organ are perfect, some combinations of registers just don't work. And he then refers to the instrumental consort as a model of the use of the registers of the organ: "The notion of using registers imitating the instrumental consort should remain the rule so as to obtain harmonious combinations." Also important is this statement: "It is not a question of finding a registration which is suitable for this or that verse but on the contrary of spontaneously improvising music defined to magnify an acoustic combination." Therefore the choice of the music on the programme depended on the various tonal colours the organ offered.

Like I wrote Jean-Charles Ablitzer has chosen music by Michael Praetorius, but not original organ music. Although Praetorius was an excellent organist little original music for the organ from his pen has been preserved. What we get here are transcriptions of compositions by Praetorius which he scored either for voices and instruments or for instruments alone. To the former category belong the sacred pieces, the latter category consist of dances from his collection Terpsichore. The practice of transcription was very common at the time. When an organist applied for an important post as organist he was expected to be able to play transcriptions of vocal music. Several examples of such transcriptions have come down to us, for instance by Samuel Scheidt and Heinrich Scheidemann.

Jean-Charles Ablitzer has transcribed some motets and sacred concertos from the various collections Michael Praetorius has published. In his registration he follows the rules he has laid down in the booklet. The two manuals guarantee that contrasts in colours are possible. But even within the 'consort registration' it is possible to create an interesting colour palette. The two manuals are used to great effect in the pieces for double choir in which Praetorius either develops a musical dialogue or creates echo effects. The sonority and penetration of the various registers of the organ creates a sound which is truly unique and often breathtaking. The splendid music of Praetorius does the rest. Most sacred pieces begin with a Sinfonia, which is followed by a performance of the hymn by tenor and organ. Several stanzas of the hymn are sung between the various sections of the transcription. In the case of Wir gläuben all an einen Gott, the German version of the Credo, all three stanzas are sung. The last section, in five parts, is the highlight of the disc: the music is brilliant and the sonority of the bass of the organ is just unforgettable.

The performance of transcriptions of dance music is justifiable on the basis of the secular use of the organ to accompany dances. So what we get here are ballets, courantes, pavanes and bransles from Praetorius' collection Terpsichore. What confirms the use of the organ in this capacity is the presence of a stop called Sackpfeife, bagpipe. It is used to great effect in the Bransle de villages. In a number of dances the upper part is played on the cornet.

This disc is a really unique document which sheds light on a largely neglected practice of the early 17th century and portrays a magnificent instrument which makes it understandable why the organ was held in such high esteem at the time. Jean-Charles Ablitzer has made most transcriptions himself, but two are partly based on transcriptions by Johann Woltz, which are edited by Friedrich Wandersleb who himself also transcribed some pieces by Praetorius. Ablitzer gives brilliant performances and shows the variety of colours this organ is able to produce. Christian Wegmann and William Dongois deliver substantial contributions to the programme.

The booklet contains extensive notes about the practice of transcribing vocal pieces and the history of the organ. It includes the disposition of the organ and the registrations of the pieces in the programme and some beautiful pictures of the organ. Every reason to strongly recommend this disc to any lover of the organ.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Musique et Mémoire
Jean-Charles Ablitzer

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