musica Dei donum

CD reviews

"Concerti per Organo"

Lucas Pohle, organ
Dresdner Barockorchester
Dir: Margret Baumgartl, Lucas Pohle

rec: July 8 - 10, 2019, Crostau, Evangelisch-Lutherische Kirche
Rondeau - ROP6185 (© 2019) (78'29")
Liner-notes: E/D
Cover, track-list & booklet
Score CPE Bach
Scores JS Bach
Score Handel

Carl Philipp Emanuel BACH (1714-1788): Concerto for organ and orchestra in G (Wq 34 / H 444); Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Concerto for organ and orchestra in d minor (after BWV 146, 188 & 1052); Prelude and fugue in e minor (BWV 548); Trio super Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (BWV 664); George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Concerto for organ and orchestra in B flat, op. 4,2 (HWV 290)

Friederike Köhncke, Petra Ambrosi, oboe; Ales Ambrosi, taille; Krystof Lada, bassoon; Margret Baumgartl, Franziska Graefe, Uta-Maria Lempert, Karina Müller, Cosima Taubert, Susanne Walter, violin, viola; Lothar Haass, viola; Thomas Pitt, cello; Ondrej Stajnochr, double bass; Michaela Hasselt, harpsichord

Around 1700 the solo concerto was born. During the first half of the 18th century a large number of such works were written. Among the instruments featured in such concertos were violin, cello, flute and oboe. In comparison, only a few composers wrote concertos for keyboard. That had everything to do with the fact that in an instrumental ensemble or an orchestra, the role of the keyboard was confined to the realisation of the basso continuo. Johann Sebastian Bach was one of the first, who gave it an obbligato role, for instance in his fifth Brandenburg Concerto and in his sonatas for harpsichord and violin. In Telemann's oeuvre we don't find any such piece, and Vivaldi composed only a few concertos with a solo role for the organ.

The latter instrument makes only a rare appearance in the concerto repertoire during the first half of the 18th century. Most keyboard concertos were intended for the harpsichord. That goes for the keyboard concertos by Johann Sebastian Bach as well as those by his son Carl Philipp Emanuel. The former's keyboard concertos - mostly adaptations of concertos previously written for other instruments, such as oboe and violin - were to be performed during concerts of the Leipzig Collegium Musicum. These took place either in Zimmermann's coffee house or in the open air. In both cases, the use of an organ would be rather unpractical.

The situation in Handel's England was different. He performed his own organ concertos during the intervals of his oratorio performances. These took place in the theatre, where he had access to an organ that was larger than the small organs mostly used for the basso continuo. This offered quite some possibilities with regard to the use of various registers and dynamic contrasts. Handel improvised a good part of his solos. What has come down to us gives only an impression of what his performances must have been like. The present recording includes one of these concertos. It is played here at a Silbermann organ which is a good deal larger than the organ Handel had at his disposal. Another difference is that its pitch is a'=466 Hz, which is known in German as Chorton. This was common in churches during the 17th century and in some parts also later. In comparison, Handel seems to have preferred a pitch of 422 Hz, as his pitchfork reveals. I am a bit sceptical about a performance of Handel's concertos on such organs. In a way, it brings us back to old times, when large organs were commonly used in these works.

That is different in the case of the 'concerto' by Johann Sebastian Bach. As the track-list indicates, this is not a concerto as it was written by Bach. It is rather a kind of reconstruction of a concerto as it may have existed in the composer's time. Lucas Pohle is not the first who made an attempt to put together an organ concerto from different compositions by Bach. Only recently, I reviewed a disc which includes a concerto, made up of the same movements as Pohle has selected, performed by Bart Jacobs and Les Muffatti. In 1726 Bach composed a number of cantatas which included movements with an obbligato organ part. Bach scholar Christoph Wolff has suggested that these pieces, mostly called sinfonia, may have been part of a programme which Bach played at a concert on the Silbermann organ of the Sophienkirche in Dresden in 1725. A newspaper report referred to "various concertos with sweet underlying instrumental music". It seems quite possible that these concertos were adaptations of solo concertos which Bach had written in Köthen, as the sinfonias in the cantatas of 1726 have also been identified as arrangements of existing concertos. If Wolff is correct, the performance here at the Silbermann organ in Crostau could hardly be more 'authentic'.

That is a good reason to include here some information about the organ. Crostau is a small village in Saxonia, east of Dresden, with less than 2,000 inhabitants. The building contract of the organ has not been preserved, but in 2006 a poem was found which includes this line about Silbermann: "the greatest master, that Saxony can claim to be its own. Adornment from no foreign plumes is needed, for by his work will Silbermann be known". In 1860/61 the organ was repaired, but no changes were made. In 1868 the old church was demolished, but before that the organ was taken out and then reinstalled in the new church. In 1913 the Quinta 1 1/2 register was removed, and this was reconstructed in 1982. In 1933 the organ was tuned to standard pitch. In 2016 it was restored as much as possible to the state of 1732. It has 20 stops, divided over two manuals and an independent pedal.

The fact that this organ was built by Silbermann is not the only reason that this performance has a high amount of 'authenticity'. The other reason is that this is the kind of instrument Bach used in his cantata performances in Leipzig. Today, mostly small chamber organs are used for the realisation of the basso continuo and even in the obbligato organ parts in Bach's cantatas, certainly in live performances, but often also on disc. Bach himself used the large organ in the St Thomas's. It is a matter of good luck, if such an organ is available for performances in our time, and if there is enough space at the organ gallery for an instrumental ensemble. That is the case here, as the picture in the booklet shows. That is the only way such a performance could be realised.

The last concerto is from the pen of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. He composed a large number of keyboard concertos, which he might have written for his own performances at private concerts in Berlin, when he was in the service of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Only two of his keyboard concertos are intended for the organ, although the harpsaichord is suggested as an alternative. It is not known for sure, why or for whom Emanuel composed these two concertos. They may have been written for Princess Anna Amalia of Prussia, Frederick the Great's sister, for whom Bach composed his six organ sonatas. She owned an organ with two manuals without pedal, and that is the kind of organ these concertos require. However, the Princess's large library does not include any copies of these concertos. Moreover, a contemporary wrote that the Princess was not able to play difficult passages, and these concertos are certainly not without technical challenges. From that angle, it is impossible to say for what kind of organ these concertos may have been intended. Emanuel himself was not known as a brilliant organist. When he became Telemann's successor as Musikdirektor in Hamburg, playing the organ in services was not part of his duties. Considering that the two organ concertos by Emanuel were certainly not intended for ecclesiastical use, the organ at Crostau is considerbly larger than the kind of instrument Emanuel may have had in mind. As these concertos are not that well known, this recording is most welcome.

The programme is extended by two works for organ solo by Johann Sebastian Bach. The Prelude and fugue in e minor is one of his most expressive works in this genre. It dates from his Leipzig period. A prelude in concerto-ritornello form is followed by an ABA fugue. Johann Mattheson characterised the key of E minor as profound and sad, and this is confirmed by dissonances and sighing figures. Those features come off very well in this performance and on this organ. The trio on Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr is one of the Leipzig Chorales.

Despite some critical remarks about the connection between organ and music in Handel, I have nothing but praise for these performances by Lucas Pohle. He is the incumbent of this organ, and knows exactly how to use it in this repertoire. He explores the disposition of the instrument for a convincing interpretation and plays with imagination and zest. The Dresdner Barockorchester is an excellent ensemble and the cooperation between organist and orchestra is immaculate.

Johan van Veen (© 2021)

Relevant links:

Dresdner Barockorchester

CD Reviews