musica Dei donum

CD reviews

Jacob PRAETORIUS (1586 - 1651): "Von allen Menschen abgewandt"

Léon Berben, organ; Britta Schwarz, mezzosopranoa
rec: August 2003, Tangermünde, St. Stephanskirche
Ramée - RAM 0402 (© 2004) (76'37")

Magnificat 1. tonia; Magnificat 4. toni; Magnificat germanicea; Praeambulum ex C.b.mol.; Praeambulum ex d; Praeambulum ex F; Vater unser im Himmelreich; Von allen Menschen abgewandt

In the 17th century North Germany was one of the centres of organ playing in Europe. Of course, organ music played an important role in the liturgy in monst countries in Europe, but probably nowhere else organ music was as much valued as here. That was partially the result of the practice of playing organ music during the communion. In the programme notes of his recording Léon Berben writes: "As many as two thousand people were present at the services in the main churches of large cities, so Communion could take up to an hour, even when only part of the congregation participated in it". Also the Vespers were important musical events: people came to the Vespers especially to listen to music. Towards the end of the 17th century the music even overshadowed the spoken word.

The music sub communione was almost the only which was played from sheet music. Otherwise organists were expected to improvise. Berben quotes a description of what was expected from an organist, and playing organ literature was not part of it. It is impressive to see what capabilities an organist was supposed to have, and this explains why so much music from North Germany is quite virtuosic. And then to realise that most music was only written down either as teaching material or to provide lesser-skilled organists with suitable repertoire. From this perspective it is quite possible that what has come down to us only gives a slight hint of what organists were capable of.

Jacob Praetorius came from a family of organists. His grandfather Jacob had been organist of the St Jacobi in Hamburg, and after his death his son Hieronymus succeeded him. Jacob received the first lessons from his father and then went to Amsterdam to study with Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. He probably was one of Sweelinck's first pupils, and they seem to have had a close relationship, as Sweelinck wrote a motet for Praetorius' wedding in 1608. It is also reported Praetorius tried to copy Sweelinck's behaviour and style of playing.

Léon Berben has chosen a number of pieces which reflect what organists were expected to play. The Magnificat was part of the Vespers, and as a result many Magnificat arrangements were written. Most of them are alternatim compositions in which the versets were alternately sung and played. The Magnificat 1. toni on this disc is performed this way, although not strictly as written down. As Berben explains there were several ways of performing a Magnificat, and here the practice is followed to sing versets which were arranged by the composer. So on two occasions three verses are sung rather than two sung and the one in between played at the organ. The arrangement opens and closes in grand style, and here the plenum of the organ is used. In the various arrangements the cantus firmus appears in various pitches, either plain or ornamented. In one variation the echo effect is used, which was quite fashionable at the time.
The Magnificat 4. toni is only played, and in the Magnificat germanice the cantus firmus is sung on a German text. It is an early example of a setting on a German text - 'Meine Seele erhebt den Herren' - which would replace the Latin version in Hamburg in 1699.

The disc also contains three relatively short preludes and two chorale partitas. Vater unser im Himmelreich is an arrangement of one of the best-known German chorales. Hardly known is Von allen Menschen abgewandt, which seems to have been used by almost no other composer. The programme notes don't give any information about what kind of chorale this is, but by searching on the internet I found that this is a rhymed version of Psalm 25 by Andreas Knöpken. In the booklet all attention is given to the use of an A flat in this piece which strictly speaking makes it unplayable on an organ in meantone temperature. But as all organs in Hamburg were tuned this way well into the 18th century there is no alternative. Organ builders sometimes used split keys, and this piece could have been composed for such an organ.

Léon Berben is regularly recording early organ music, and mostly lesser-known repertoire. That is also the case here, and therefore this disc is an important addition to the catalogue. Apart from that Léon Berben gives splendid performances, with an excellent articulation and a good choice of registers (which is not given in the booklet). The organ in Tangermünde, built in 1624 by Hans Scherer, is an impressive instrument and the perfect vehicle for Praetorius' organ music.

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Léon Berben

CD Reviews