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Concert reviews

"Georg Böhm - 350 years"

Kris Verhelst, harpsichord
concert: March 17, 2012, Zeist, Church of the Community of Moravian Brethren

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750): Partita No. 2 in c minor (BWV 826); Prelude in a minor (BWV 922) (attr); Georg BÖHM (1661-1733): Partita Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten; Prelude, fugue and postlude in g minor; Suite in c minor; Suite in E flat; Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722): Holländische Nachtigahl; Suitte in a minor (attr)

Last year it was 350 years ago that the German composer Georg Böhm was born. This fact didn't receive that much attention. The Belgian label Ricercar released a disc with organ music, played by Bernard Foccroulle, and Friedhelm Flamme recorded his complete organ music for the German label CPO. But that part of his oeuvre is often performed and regularly recorded. It is in particular among organists that Böhm is a household name.

Apart from music for keyboard there is little to choose from in Böhm's oeuvre. It contains a small number of cantatas which have been recorded by the Capella Sancti Georgi and Musica Alta Ripa, directed by Ralf Popken (CPO, 2006; deutsche harmonia mundi, 2008) and some sacred songs. The latter is the least-known part of his oeuvre, but unfortunately the commemoration of Böhm's birth hasn't been used as an opportunity to record them. Böhm is mostly associated with the organ, but some of the pieces which are usually played at the organ can also be performed at the harpsichord, and in some cases maybe even conceived for it in the first place. To this category belong chorale partitas without pedal part. They were probably intended for domestic use rather than the liturgy.
,br> The chorale partita Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten was one of the compositions which the Belgian harpsichordist Kris Verhelst played during a series of concerts devoted to Böhm and his environment. I attended the performance in the small town of Zeist, east of Utrecht. The subject was the connection between Böhm and both Reincken and Johann Sebastian Bach. Böhm was in Hamburg from 1693 to 1697 where he heard Johann Adam Reincken. He on his turn had a strong influence on the young Bach. Pieces by all three composers were represented in the programme.

It opened with one of Böhm's best-known pieces, often played by organists, the Prelude, fugue and postlude in g minor. It is a typical product of the North-German organ school, characterised by the stylus phantasticus. Despite the title it is a kind of toccata as written by the likes of Buxtehude, beginning with an improvisatory prelude, followed by a fugue and ending with another improvisatory section. The improvisatory character was emphasized through a subtle use of rubato, whereas in the fugue the rhythmic pulse was particularly well exposed. It was followed by a suite which reflects the French influence on Böhm's keyboard music, although on the whole it is more German than French in character.

Next came Reincken, first with a series of variations on Holländische Nachtigahl; the tune is better known as Engels nachtegaeltje, especially through the variations for recorder by Jacob van Eyck. It was a nice idea of Ms Verhelst to play Reincken's variations on the 4' stop. This work was followed by a suite which is attributed to Reincken. Although it followed the pattern of the French-inspired suite with its four dances - allemande, courante, sarabande and gigue, it didn't sound very French into my ears. The gigue came off particularly well.

Much more French was the Suite in E flat by Böhm which opened the second part of the programme. Ms Verhelst, in a short talk after the interval, stated that she considered the opening allemande as a kind of tombeau, and she was right. It reminded me of the tombeaus by Froberger and Louis Couperin, even sometimes in the thematic material. The performance was full of tension, also due to the perfectly-chosen slow tempo. It was a nice gesture to dedicate this movement to the memory of Gustav Leonhardt. It was also appropriate to close the programme with a piece by Bach, the composer with whom Leonhardt is associated more than any other. The Partita No. 2 in c minor was given a strongly gestural and rhetorical performance, which would certainly have pleased the old master.

It is not that Böhm's oeuvre for harpsichord, including his suites, has been completely neglected. Gustav Leonhardt is one of those who have devoted a disc to this part of his oeuvre. But in programmes of harpsichord music Böhm's name doesn't often turn up, and especially his suites are rather little-known. Therefore it was a great to hear his music being given such fine performances by an excellent harpsichordist as Kris Verhelst, and on a beautiful harpsichord to boot: a copy of the famous Dulcken of 1747 which is in the Museum Vleeshuis in Antwerp.

Johan van Veen (© 2012)

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