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Johann Caspar KERLL (1627 - 1693): "Complete free organ works"

Wolfgang Kogert, organ

rec: August 2011, Vienna, Franziskanerkirche
NCA - 60248 (© 2011) (73'03")
Liner-notes: E/D/F
Cover & track-list

Battaglia; Canzona I; Canzona II; Canzona III; Canzona IV; Canzona V; Canzona VI; Capriccio sopra il cucu; Ciaccona; Passacaglia; Ricercata; Toccata I; Toccata II; Toccata III; Toccata IV cromatica con durezze e ligature; Toccata V tutta de salti; Toccata VI per il pedale; Toccata VII; Toccata VIII

Johann Caspar Kerll is one of the main representatives of the South-German/Austrian organ school. Today he is almost exclusively known for his organ works, but his oeuvre also includes a number of sacred vocal works, among them masses and mass movements. He composed various operas which are all lost. Kerll was from a Protestant family in Bohemia. However, he converted to Catholicism, probably at the time he was organist at the court of archduke Leopold Wilhelm in Vienna. He was given the opportunity to go to Rome where he studied with Carissimi. Here he also became acquainted with the keyboard works of Girolamo Frescobaldi who had died in 1643, about five years before Kerll's arrival in Rome. His music had a lasting influence on Kerll's development as a composer of keyboard music.

In 1656 he returned to become Hofkapellmeister at the court of the Bavarian elector Ferdinand Maria in Munich. From 1677 until his death he worked as organist at the imperial court in Vienna. His reputation lasted well into the 18th century: both Bach and Handel knew his work, and the latter used one of his organ works for his oratorio Israel in Egypt.

The keyboard oeuvre by Kerll comprises four suites for harpsichord; the other works are all for organ, although a number of them are for manuals without pedal, and therefore can be played at the harpsichord. However, there can be little doubt that they were conceived as organ works. Toccatas and canzonas constitute the largest part of his oeuvre. Both genres had their origin in Italy, and especially Kerll's toccatas are strongly inspired by Frescobaldi. These root in the stylus phantasticus, characterised by pronounced contrasts between various sections of a work. Within the corpus of Kerll's eight extant toccatas there are quite some differences which are partly indicated in the titles. The Toccata IV cromatica con durezze e ligature is in the tradition of Italian organ music. For this work, with its many peculiar harmonies, an instrument in mean-tone temperament - such as the organ played here - is essential. The title of the Toccata VI per il pedale could suggest that the presence of pedal part is something special, but that is not the case. All the toccatas have a pedal part, but here it has a special role in that it includes pedal points.

The canzonas came into existence in the renaissance and were rooted in the chanson. In the hands of keyboard composers they developed into multisectional pieces which during the 17th century gradually turned into fugues. Six canzonas from Kerll's hand are known, and just like the toccatas they show considerable variety in content. The first section of the Canzona III, for instance is dominated by quickly repeated notes. Kerll's oeuvre includes only one ricercare (Ricercata) which is of a contrapuntal nature, just as the canzona, but omits the latter's division into contrasting sections.

Imitation of natural phenomena or animals was quite popular in southern Germany and Austria in Kerll's time. One of his contemporaries was Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber who loved to play such imitations on his violin. The cuckoo was often imitated, and in Kerll's Capriccio sopra il cucu its characteristic call is imitated in all the voices. Biber was also one of the composers who wrote battaglias. These were mostly scored for instrumental ensemble. Battaglias for organ were especially popular in Spain; among composers of such works are Pablo Bruna and José Ximénez. Kogert's performance is remarkable in that he plays the last section in a rather intimate registration. That seems a sensitive decision: a battle is not only about the noise of weapons and war cries.

During the baroque era, and especially in the 17th century, many pieces were written which are based on a basso ostinato. The Ciaccona and the Passacaglia are both based on a descending figure. These two pieces are for manuals without pedal; the Passacaglia comprises some passages with strong chromaticism.

Wolfgang Kogert plays a most suitable organ, built in 1642 in the Franciscan convent in Vienna by JohannWöckherl. It is an intriguing thought that Kerll might have known this organ and even have played it. We'll probably never know. It is likely, though, that this is the kind of organ for which he composed his organ works. In 2007 it was reconstructed into its original state as far as the latter was known. The disposition and in particular the tuning suit the music of Kerll quite well. Wolfgang Kogert is probably not the most adventurous organist, but he plays these works nicely and both the contrasts between the sections of a piece and the harmonic peculiarities are well conveyed. The importance of this disc can hardly be overrated: Kerll was one of the most important organ composers of his time, and his small oeuvre is versatile and of excellent quality. Organ aficionados should not hesitate.

Johan van Veen (© 2014)

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Wolfgang Kogert

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