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"Playing in the Organ"

[I] "Chorale Concertos and Chorale Variations"
Veronika Wintera, Stephanie Petitlaurentb, soprano
Hamburger Ratsmusik
Dir: Simone Eckert

rec: March 12 - 15, 2007, Berlin, Deutschlandradio, Siemens-Villa (Studio Gärtnerstraße)
CPO - 777 362-2 (© 2008) (57'46")

[II] "Spielen in die Orgel" (Playing in the Organ)
Pieter van Dijk, organc; Annegret Siedel, violind

rec: Sept 10 - 13, 2006, Alkmaar, Grote of st Laurenskerk
Cantate - C58029 (© 2006) (71'12")

[I] John DOWLAND (1563-1626): Von Gott will ich nicht lassen; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (c1595-1663): Betrübet ist zu dieser Frist; Johann SCHOP (c1590-1667): Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christb; Christ lag in Todesbandenab; Ich ruff zu dir, Herr Jesu Christa; Koraelen; Thomas SELLE (1599-1663): Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der den Tod überwandab; Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandtab; Wir gläuben all an einen Gottab
[II] Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019a): presto; cantabilecd; Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565), version for organc, version for violind; Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707): Praeludium in g minor (BuxWV 148)c; Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722): Was kann uns kommen an für Not, chorale fantasiac; Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN: Paduana Lachrymaec; Praeambulum in Fc; Toccata in G, arr for organ and violincd; Johann SCHOP: Lacrimae Pavancd

[I] Christoph Heidemann, Henning Vater, violin; Simone Eckert, viola da gamba; Ulrich Wedemeier, theorbo, lute; Michael Fuerst, harpsichord, organ

These two discs, as different as they may be in scoring and repertoire, both concentrate on a part of performance practice in North-German cities which so far has been almost completely neglected. It was called in German "Spielen in die Orgel", translated: "playing (or litterally "blowing") in the organ". The booklets of both discs quote a contemporary description of this practice.

The poet Johann Rist once came especially the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg in order "to hear the world-famous Herr Scheidemann on the organ. After the sermon was finished, my very dear and intimate friend, the old, much-praised Herr Schoop [Schop] said to Herr Scheidemann: 'My brother, do let us, to please our dear Rüstigen [Rist], a great lover of our science as well as a long-acknowledged friend, play a fine piece together (...). As Scheidemann was very willing to do so, they began "to play a little piece, moving beyond all measures, with a well-versed falsetto singing the text very charmingly (...)."

Since 1641 the music director in Hamburg was Thomas Selle, who from the next year undertook a major reform of church music. He made sure experienced singers from outside the church were allowed to participate in the performances of church music and also the members of the Ratsmusik were obliged to take part. This way demanding repertoire could be performed, ranging from virtuosic pieces for two instruments to large-scale vocal works with solo singers, instruments and a ripieno choir.
This practice was called Figuralmusik, and since Selle had to serve the four principal churches in Hamburg, this practice was applied only once in every four weeks in the respective churches. On the other Sundays and feast days it was the organist who was responsible for the church music, and he was allowed to hire instrumentalists or singers. This practice was called Organistenmusik, and consisted of small-scale sacred concertos or instrumental pieces.

These two discs reflect this particular practice. The CPO production brings mainly vocal music, based on chorales, whereas the Cantata disc presents pieces for organ and instruments, here the violin.

Chorales were a very important part of the liturgy. The quotation given above shows that it was common practice that a singer sang a chorale melody, with the organ and an instrument providing the counterpoint. In the oeuvre of Thomas Selle and Johann Schop music with a chorale as cantus firmus plays an important role. Specimen of their compositions in this genre can be heard on the CPO disc.

Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, der von uns den Gotteszorn wandt consists of 10 stanzas which are treated differently. In the first one of the sopranos sings the unornamented chorale melody, with the viola da gamba playing figurations. In the second stanza the other soprano uses violinistic ornamentation, only with basso continuo. In some other stanzas the two sopranos both sing, in various ways: unisono or each with its own part, with or without ornamentation. In the fourth stanza the melody is treated more freely, whereas in the fifth stanza the sopranos sing in parallels, with the melody practically unornamented. In the 6th stanza the sopranos follow their own route: the first sings the melody heavily ornamented, whereas the second sings the same melody almost unaltered. In the 7th stanza the sopranos sing unisono; the ornaments are provided by the violin. Stanza 8 is performed here instrumentally: the chorale is taken by the viola da gamba, whereas the violin provides the counterpoint. The 9th stanza has the form of a sacred concerto, and the last stanza presents the chorale melody again with ornamentation, sung by the sopranos.
The same practices are applied in the two other chorale settings by Selle, Jesus Christus unser Heiland, der den Tod überwand and Wir gläuben all an einen Gott.

Johann Schop is first and foremost known as violinist and composer of music for strings. But he also wrote vocal music, two specimen of which have been recorded here. In his sacred concertos Ich ruff zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ and Christ lag in Todesbanden he treats the chorale melodies generally more freely than Selle; only here and there snatches of the original melodies are quoted.
A bit mysterious is Schop's Koraelen. This piece for treble viol (or violin) and bc was printed in the Dutch collection 't Uitnement Kabinet of 1646; hence its Dutch title. Litterally translated the title is "Chorale" - only sofar nobody has been able to identify the chorale Schop has used here. This piece is written after the model of English divisions on a ground, showing the influence of English music in North Germany, in particular through William Brade, who for some time worked in Hamburg.
This could be the justification of adding a lute piece by another English composer, John Dowland. It is not just a piece, though: the variations on the French chanson Une jeune fillette are from a German tablature, in which it is given the title of the German chorale with the same melody, Von Gott will ich nicht lassen.
A bit odd is the inclusion of a harpsichord piece by Heinrich Scheidemann, Betrübet ist zu dieser Frist. Although it is quite possible that the harpsichord was used in performances of church music, it was definitely not used to play solo pieces, let alone pieces of a secular character. Considering the important role Scheidemann played in Hamburg I can imagine that at least one piece by him was included, but I think an organ work had been a much more logical choice.

On the whole this is a very interesting and captivating disc, though, which sheds light on a largely neglected music practice in the 17th century. The sopranos give very fine performances; they have beautiful voices which blend very well. The ensemble's performances also leave nothing to be desired. Christoph Heidemann and Simone Eckert give impressive performances of the sometimes quite virtuosic solo parts on violin and viola da gamba respectively.

One could argue that the use of a small chamber organ is not very authentic. When Scheidemann was playing with his colleagues, as is indicated in the quotation at the start of this review, he certainly will have used the large organ in one of Hamburg's churches. In this respect the second disc, recorded by Pieter van Dijk and Annegret Siedel, is closer to the original circumstances.

The booklet of this disc contains much interesting information about this practice of "playing in the organ". It was the first of the two discs I heard, and as I found the concept behind this disc very interesting, I was rather disappointed about the way it was put into practice.

First of all, if in the booklet this practice of "playing in the organ" is associated to North Germany, then why are two movements from Johann Sebastian Bach's Sonata for harpsichord and violin in G (BWV 1019a) included? As far as I know this practice was not applied in Leipzig, and I think it is simply inconceivable that Bach ever played parts of his sonatas for keyboard and violin during the liturgy in St Thomas'. Even if one assumes these sonatas were written in Köthen, it is still very unlikely they have ever been played this way as Bach didn't act as organist there. Secondly, if the artists want to shed light on the practice of organ and violin playing together in churches, why are 46 of the 72 minutes on this disc filled with music for either organ solo or violin solo?

It is interesting, though, that the famous Toccata and fugue in d minor (BWV 565) - whose authenticity, incidentally, is disputed - is played here in a version for violin solo, reconstructed by Jaap Schröder. It is assumed this could be the original version of this work. Annegret Siedel plays it well, but I find the tempo a bit too slow. The 'conventional' organ version opens the programme on this disc, and here again the tempo is too slow, and it also sounds pretty heavy, as so often. Most satisfying are the pieces by the Hamburg composers Johann Schop and Heinrich Scheidemann and the English immigrant William Brade. In these works the choir organ of the St Laurenskerk in Alkmaar is used which is tuned in meantone temperament. In the organ works by Bach, Buxtehude and Reinken Pieter van Dijk plays the large organ of this church, which is tuned in equal temperament. This in particular undermines the performances of Buxtehude and Reinken, as their music fares better with meantone temperament or - if necessary - slight modifications of it.

It is a shame a promising project like this has more or less gone off the rails by not really consistent programming and by partly choosing the wrong

Johan van Veen (© 2009)

Relevant links:

Hamburger Ratsmusik

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