Modal Magic from Winchester

W.A. Grieve-Smith

[August 2001. Originally appeared in La Folia 3:4.]

Thomas Tallis: Missa Salve intermerata Winchester Cathedral Choir (David Hill) Hyperion CDA67207 (May 22-25, 2000)

Many of us had our introduction to the music of Thomas Tallis via Vaughn Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” These sure-footed modal harmonies come from Tallis’ metrical psalm setting for Archbishop Matthew Parker. My own introduction came from “Tallis’ Canon” which we sang at Evensong from the New American Hymnal of l940 (probably cribbed from Vaughn Williams’ 1910 Anglican Hymnal).

Hyperion has just released this latest Tallis CD by the Wincasterians. David Hill is still using the 20th century Eyetalian pronunciation of Latin. But he has cut back on the number of boy trebles, which keeps them from overpowering the men’s vocal lines. For me, this is the most satisfying extant performance, not only of the Salve intemerata mass, but the two votive antiphons: Ave rosa sine spinis and Salve intemerata. If you like the English Cadence and modal false relations, you’ll find them in abundance.

I believe that the most moving religious music is mantric, stirs a level beneath legalisms, leases and words. Consequently I feel that it was a mistake for the Anglicans to shift from Latin to English. This had some unintended consequences: in Cornwall, where they did not speak English, the Holy Mysteries were conducted in yet another language they didn’t understand! So Robert Herrick reported that almost a century later the Cornish were saying: Chreezum zuzum onitentum, a garbled version of Credo in unum Deum.

About choir size: much ink has been spilt about the correct number of singers, with citations of the numbers employed at various institutions. What no one has brought up is the size of the space the choir needs to be heard in. It’s a matter of musical practicality. Christopher Hogwood reports that Mr Handel routinely doubled winds and strings to fill larger venues.

Thomas Tallis: The Complete Works, Vol 1. Chapelle du Roi (Alistair Dixon) Signum SIG001 (l997)

Here ten singers (with women instead of boys) record virtually the same selections in a smaller, if resonant location: St Augustine’s Church, Kilburn. This approximates what you might hear in a privaste royal chapel or parish church. All the harmonies are there, but the smoke and incense are missing. Interestingly, the pacing seems identical. You would expect slower singing in a bigger, more reverberant space. Dixon does not bracket the polyphony with plainsong as does Hill. The Winchester CD is not a recreation of an actual service (probably too long for the average CD) but does convey the contrast between Sarum plainchant and the explosion of flowering polyphony.

These two CDs are my pick of the litter for valid introductions to both the music and the different sound results possible in interpretations of Tallis.

Thomas Tallis: The Canterbury Years Canterbury Cathedral Choir (David Flood) Metronome MET CD 1014 (1996)

The Canterbury men & boys do the virtually identical selections as in the Winchester CD, but without the contrasting plainsong. And Canterbury Cathedral gives Winchester a run for reverberation. This was formerly my favorite, until the Winchester CD came out. Now it’s obvious that the trebles overwhelm the mens’ parts. Not at all a bad recording or interpretation — and certainly the one to buy if you can’t stand chant!

Byrd and Tallis: Choral Music St John’s College Choir, Cambridge (George Guest) EMI Classics for Pleasure 7243 5 74002 0 (l988)

Here you get Byrd’s Mass for 4 Voices and Mass for 5 Voices, but the only Tallis is the Missa Salve intemerata Virgo, sans plainsong, recorded in the much smaller St John’s College Chapel. And, sad to say, again too much from the trebles. And the Byrd masses are also available from Winchester on Hyperion, albeit at full price. With who knows what the ultimate fate of EMI will be in the merger raffles, this recording may just come out at a super bargain price. Or disappear without a trace?

I’ll have more to come on Tallis in connection with new Spem in alium recordings, if the weather be good

Organs, Organists and Polarity

CD and the Organ: Justifiable Infanticide?

If you’re not a devoted fan of a particular composer who wrote for the organ or an admirer of a musician who plays the organ, where do you start? Or do you? My guess is that most collectors simply pass ’em by and turn to more familiar composers and instruments. In the classical field, apart from paid ads and commercials, the biggest exposure for a new recording comes from air play on the radio set. Not for organ music, it ain’t. Ask any broadcaster: organ music is anathema. WNYC used to broadcast a Sunday night show called “Pipedreams,” from Minnesota Public Broadcasting. Some concert recordings and a monthly review of new organ CDs. Well, guess what got dumpt when new management took over WNYC? Pipedreams is now history, at least for the NY area. Don’t know if it survives elsewhere. On the Net, perhaps?

Organ antipathy is nothing new: organs have been the target of zealous vandals and religious Luddites for centuries. Even Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the Book of Common Prayer personally began the destruction of the main organ at S Paul’s cathedral. That’s the old, gothic S Paul’s, destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. (That pile was even bigger than Sir Christopher Wren’s current replacement!) My guess is that it represents a lawyer’s conviction that the word is superior to the music. Music out, legalisms in! So who needs organs?

Oddly enough, it was the music, specifically Gregorian chant, that was responsible for the spread of Roman Catholic Christianity. The barbarians, after the demise of Rome, were tickled by the sound of the chant. They didn”t speak Latin and were illiterate besides, so it couldn”t have been the words. Mind you, this was before the time of much in the way, if any, of musical notation. So if you wanted to learn how to sing the chant, you had to join up! And the Church would either send you to a choir school in Italy or Switzerland, or send a choirmaster/missionary to teach your locals the proper way to sing the chant. (They were probably organ-free.)

Later, during Cromwell’s revolution, poor Thomas Tomkins watched the destruction of the Tomas Dallam organ at Worcester Cathedral, where he had presided since 1595. Tomkins also composed A Pavan for these Distracted Times. In the last century, one of the reasons that urged Ralph Vaughn Williams to edit the New Anglican Hymnal of 1910 was the deplorable state of religious music in the Church of England VW also availed himself the opportunity to Play God by linking favorite verses to some of his favorite folk songs or chorales. At that time, before the radio or affordable recordings, the only opportunity ordinary folks had to hear any music at all was in Church. And it was the trashy treacle available that urged on venerable “Rafe.” He also dug up Tallis’ Canon and the “Why fumest” theme for his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

What does this preamble have to do with Organ CDs? Well, the purveyors of Trashy Treacle are still very much with us — and in force. Like televangelism, the market for dreck religious music has grown exponentially. Hence this Layman’s Guide to the sublime and the deplorably dreadful now on offer in organ CDs. For starters, let’s make a strategic division of organ recordings: there’s Bach, and then there’s everybody else. And one way to approach some degree of clarity is to focus on artists, not composers. Let’s start with probably the strangest way of playing the organ: so-called rhetorical phrasing as practiced by Lena Jacobson. Mercifully Ms Jacobson is only represented on two CDs I’m aware of: DHM (Deutsche Harmonia Mundi) 05472 77455 (l997), a live recording of Buxtehude organ works on the restored Huss/Schniger organ at Ss Cosmae & Damian in Stade, Deutschland. In l975, Jurgen Ahrend restored the instrument to its 1688 specifications, including modified mean-tone tuning. The organ is as authentic as it’s possible today. And Jacobson’s playing is an attempt to recreate the rhetorical playing style current in Buxtehude, and Bach’s day.

Rhetorical phrasing, to sum up, is to treat musical phrases as groups and not play them as written. And certainly not with steady, immutable rhythm. This has to be heard to be believed: a series of hiccups and stops and starts and slurs. Even if the archaeology is impeccable — and there’s naturally considerable dispute about this — few organists embrace this performance practice. Maybe it really sounded like that back then. But I sure as hell don’t want to hear it sound like that today!

The only other extant Jacobson recording mit Rhetorik is BIS CD 126 (l978) Court & Dance Music from the Renaissance and Early Baroque, played on the organ by Esias Compenius from 1610. (This organ was personally designed by Michael Praetorius for his boss, the Duke Heinrich-Julius of Braunschweig-Luneburg. After the duke’s demise in 1613, his widow gave the organ to her brother, King Christian IV of Denmark. The instrument was restored by the Cavaille-Coll firm in 1895. It has been re-restored in 1985-88 in collaboration with Jurgen Ahrend. You can evaluate the re-restored instrument on Da Capo 8.224057 [l996], played by Per Kynne Frandsen.

Frankly, you would be hard put to believe that this is the same organ, comparing the BIS and Da Capo CDs! Mr Frandsen plays early 17th-century music, but sans Rhetorik. The Compenius organ never was a church organ; probably for continuo parts in courtly dances and concerts. This was the era of Praetorius, Dr John Bull and Jan Pieterzoon Sweelinck, when there was no distinction made between organ and harpsichord and virginal music. Any handy keyboard would do. And most did not have the splendiferous ugliness of the ducal instrument. I could think for a week and never come up looks of the nastiness of this case.

To continue on about Rhetoric: Wolfgang Rubsam has made some Naxos recording using a less severe form of rhetoric than Jacobson. And several reviewers in the past have accused him of rhythmic instability, not realizing that these agogics were deliberate, not just incompetence. Beware of Rubsam’s traversal of Die Kunst der Fuge on Naxos 8.550703/704. He plays the decent Flentrop organ at Duke University. But he turns Contrapunctus 14 into the dreariest of slow dirges! Pulls it clean out of shape, he does.

Now Mr (or Herr) Rubsam seems to be confining his talents as producer of organ recordings for Naxos. Oh, yes: why, oh why, does the Naxos CD of “Die Kunst” have pictures of the Riepp organ in the Ottobeuren monastery? Other Naxos CDs have perfectly decent pictures of the Duke chapel Flentrop. Apart from transcriptions for kazoo quartet (hope I’m not giving anyone ideas!) the rhetorical interpretations of Jacobson and Rubsam represent the Authentik extreme. Oh, yes: some years back Bellaphon released about 6 CDs of the Complete Buxtehude organ works recorded by Rubsam, with rhetoric, on Metzler organs (modern repros of Schnitger and Silbermann originals).

Now Naxos has announced Buxtehude Vol. 1, but not played by Rubsam. I have no idea whether Rubsam has any ownership or financial interest in the Bellaphon tapings. Or whether they reside in some legal limbo of the assets of bankrupt companies? Or maybe Rubsam has revised his ideas about rhetoric? So far this overview (underview?) hasn’t provided much you’d want to rush out and buy. Unless you have a taste for the outrageously perverse. Still avoiding J.S. Bach, let’s turn to a truly recommendable performance (not just me, but also Diapason magazine) of a virtually unknown composer:

Matthias Weckmann: Organ Works vols. 1 & 2 Wolfgang Zerer, Schnitger organ, 1686, St Jakobi Church, Hamburg, Germany Naxos 8.553849/50 (1996; Produced, engineered by Norddeutsche Rundfunk [NDR])

First, the organ: The Jakobi organ is the largest extant Schnitger organ (4 manuals + pedals) lovingly restored by Jurgen Ahrend at a cost of some $3 million and contains the most extensive collection of 16th and 17th century pipe work in Europe. In the 1660s, Weckmann himself presided at the predecessor of this organ in the Jakobikrche. But shortly after Weckmann’s death the organs wooden parts were infested with wood worm and needed replacement. It was then that Schnitger was called in to use as much as possible of the earlier instrument. Fortunately in WWII the pipes, but not the console or case, were stored in the basement. Naturally, the Jakobikirche was flattened, but by l996 Ahrend was able to supply a new case, console and mechanism.

The composer: Weckmann first turns up in Dresden as a choirboy under Heinrich Schutz. Later Schutz arranges for young Weckmann to study organ in Hamburg with Jacob Praetorius, a pupil of Sweelinck and son of Hieronymus Praetorius, the Jakobi organist. (These Praetorii are not related to the famous Michael Praetorius. Not only did many German pastors translate their surnames into Latin, but so did other church officials, who were originally named Schulz!)

After Weckmann’s studies in Hamburg he returned to act as Schutz’s organist and deputy both in Dresden and later in Copenhagen. In 1655 Weckmann was awarded the post as organist at St Jakobi. Incidentally, the Town Cantor was also a pupil of Schutz: Christoph Bernhard. In the Praetorii and Weckmann’s day all organ music had to be based on chorale melodies, either as a cantus firmus or as a theme for a Chorale Fantasy. Zerer does a very skillful job of bringing out both the monumentality of the large organ, as well as its quieter, chamber-style divisions. If you like the relentless polyphony of Die Kunst der Fuge you’ll find Weckmann’s inspirations quite compelling.

Matthias Weckmann: Das Orgelwerk Hans Davidsson, Arp Schniger organ, 1688, Ludgerikirche, Norden, Ostfriesland Motette DCD 11461 (1990).

Well, here are two more CDs of the complete (extant) organ works of Weckmann, this time recorded on the second largest Schnitger organ (after S. Jakobi) also restored by Jurgend Ahrend. Davidsson stresses more the chamber qualities of Weckmann’s writing. He also uses the Cimbelsterne (little bells) and the Nightingale stop. This may sound like kitsch today, but no self-respecting Seventeenth Century organ lacked both! And many organs also had little mechanical drums to go along with the trumpet stops.

I’m not sure if the Motette CDs are readily available in shops, but they probably can be ordered. There are two more Weckmann CDs: Ricercar RIC 140152 and Chandos Chaconne CHAN 0646. But these are chamber works and secular cantatas. Not only not organ. But have other reservations about recorded balance. So hopefully you’ll enjoy the introduction to Weckmann. And look forward to more gems from The King of Instruments…

Organ Orgasms: Famous Organs We Have Known

To depart from consideration of organists and composers (and in the dear dead past most organists were the composers, either as improvisers or simply performers of their own work), let’s turn to some outstanding organs. After this intrusive observation:

It’s hard for us today to realize that music as a commodity is a relatively new phenomenon. We can flip on the radio set or the teevee, an LP, tape, CD or even DVD and have Instant Music. And soon to a satellite near you will gush a gazillion channels of music of every description. And some that even defy description! So the foreground or background noise is ours 24/7. Not so in the even recent past. You had to roll your own if you could play. Or pay others less fortunate to play something for us. Or do without. Listen to the wind or the chickens. The piano proliferated in households aspiring to Culture at the beginning of the 20th Century. But 80% were player pianos to which you fed piano rolls, from ragtime to Busoni. Yes, there were screechy, wind-up acoustic phonographs, or Gramophones. With three minutes of playing time, records were no match for the longer piano rolls. Not to mention the Aeolian player organs! Go to the Frick Museum today and look near the main staircase you’ll see Mr Henry Clay Frick’s Aeolian organ, playable by a minion musician or an organ roll! (With all the hoo-ha about restoring Great Pianists performances from piano rolls, how come nobody has thought to make modern recordings from rolls made by Great Organists of the past? The music and melodramatic performance style would probably make Stokowski or even Virgil Fox turn in their graves). The Graduate College at Princeton’s Proctor Hall used to posses a player Aeolian, complete with paper rolls. I played on it. Never had nerve enough to thread up a roll and try it out — for fear of gumming up the whole console. And even in the 1940s who could find someone who knew how to repair the beast? (William Cooper Proctor, the donor of the Hall, owned a soap company in Cincinnati with a Mr Gamble. And his grandson, Jim Crudgington, was a student at the time.) But … onward to the most illustrious organ treasure of ’em all:

Jakobikirche, Hamburg: Arp Schnitger organ (l693, restored 1993, Jurgen Ahrend) Harald Vogel, a noted German organist and scholar, has an entire CD: Dietrich Buxtehude Orgelwerke Vol. 7,. Dabringhaus und Grimm MD+G L 3427 (1993).

Vogel plays four Praeludia, four Chorale fantasies and one Te Deum with panache, using the thunderous 32-foot pedal pipes where appropriate. Vogel is uniquely careful to emphasize the chamber, consort registrations as well. Like a Mahler symphony, even with a large orchestra, everything doesn’t have to sound all at once. The Hansa organists prided themselves on the use of color contrasts from the large variety of stops at their disposal. Of the two complete Buxtehude organ traversals available, this is the series to get. It’s also available separately. And the recorded quality is as good as it gets anywhere. (No small feat, considering the usual difficulties of traffic and errant echoes endemic to recording organs!) All the organs in the series are restored originals, from dinky to massive.

We’re fortunate today that the digital and CD medium can handle the 16-Hz (or cycles per second, as we were wont to say) bass notes without blurring or groove jumping. Not to mention the 20-kHz high frequencies present in many organ mixture and mutation stops. Ironically, the best analog carrier of bass frequencies was the 78 rpm disc! This was obscured by the lack of bass power in early tube amps and speakers that also wimped out in the lows. Pity.

The Jakobikrche Schnitger was still in pieces in Jurgen Ahrend’s atelier when Vogel recorded the rest of the series. Oh, yes: there’s another Compleat Buxtehude organ box by Ulrik Spang-Hanssen on the Danish Classic CD 143-48. Reg Green in the Absolute Sound thinks that Disc 5, recorded on the restored organ in Roskilde Cathedral sounds exactly like the sound of that organ , live. Maybe so — I have been to Roskilde but never entered the Cathedral or heard the organ in the flesh, as it were. My reaction is that the entire series represents the performances of a conventional, mediocre parish organ schlepper, with recorded quality to match. Save your shekels for Vogel. Or, maybe the new series announced from Naxos. Naxos certainly did well by the Jakobi organ and sound in their Weckmann releases I mentioned above. But they had help from the anonymous engineers at NDR (Norddeutsche Rundfunk, to you.)

The Arp Schnitger Organ at St Jacobi, Hamburg Gustav Leonhardt Sony SK 66 262 (l994)

Half of this lovely CD is devoted to compositions and intabulatures (transcriptions of vocal works) by Heinrich Scheidemann, organist till 1663 at Hamburg’s Catherinekirche, and pupil of Sweelinck. Leonhardt also gives us Melchior Schild, Nicolaus Bruhns (pupil of Buxtehude) Georg Bohm (teacher of Bach at Luneburg) and Johann Sebastion himself. A rather complete sampling of the various styles employed by Hansa organists at the time. Leonhardt’s readings are always musical, historically appropriate and lively as well. He manages to impart genuine joy in the music, not always the case with organists struggling to finish. A varied picture of the many moods and voices available at S Jakobi. Enjoy.

Konstantin Reymaier Plays the Arp Schnitger organ of St Jacobi, Hamburg Great European Organs, No. 55. Priory PRCD 607 (1999)

Erich Konstantin Reymaier is a young Austrian, organist at Mansfield College, Oxford, and a researcher in theology. (His parents generously supported this recording). And he delivers some of the most idiomatically musical organ readings I’ve heard in decades! Well worthy of the Jakobi organ. Without ostentation he traverses Tunder (Buxtehude’s predecessor and father-in-law) Weckmann, Scheidemann, Buxtehude and Bach, J.S. of course. In Weckmann’s Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g’mein, he brings out thrilling mean-tone dissonances in the reeds that Wolfgang Zerer complete missed in his recording for Naxos. And he (Reymaier) gives a beautifully paced reading of Buxtehude’s Mit Fried und Freud in calm chamber style, befitting Buxtehude’s funeral tribute to his father, Hans Jensen. Best of all is his traversal of Bach’s Toccata in E (transcribed to C to fit the semi meantone tuning): plenty of flourish and 32-foot pedal foundation.

Now here’s a comparison for you: Ton Koopman has recorded the same Toccata, BWV 566, on the same organ. Hmmm… With Koopman you’d hardly know it’s the same piece! With a frantic, slapdash quality that’s supposed to represent improvisation or the Stylus Phantasticus or whatever. (Phantasieren in German simply means improvise). The Koopman is in the Teldec series: 4509-98443-2 (1995). Granted that Koopman is recording the ganze Orgelwerke, modern reviewers tend to excuse the rough edges or routine interpretations. Shouldn’t be. Back in the 1920s Marcel Dupré, Karl Straub and others made a routine practice of playing the complete organ works of Bach from memory, no less! (At least they didn’t have to scramble to turn pages).

BACH: Organ Works Vol. 4 Ton Koopman Teldec 4509-98443-2 (1995)

After dumping on Koopman’s reading of BWV 566 (only in comparison with Reymaier) I still enjoy Koopman’s Toccata in F, the notorious Toccata con Fuga in D minor, Toccata in C and the Dorian Toccata et Fuga in D minor, plus the Praeludium et Fuga in D major — as much for the sheer sound of the Jakobi organ.

Herr Bach himself played on this same 1693 Schnitger in 1720 when he applied for the job as Jakobi organist. And one of the examiners was none other than Jan Adam Reinken, organist at the Katherinekirche and successor, in 1663, to Heinrich Scheidemann. Reinken was 97 at the time and still very much playing! Only lived to 99., from Sweelinck’s time to Bach’s. Well. Let’s hope someone, BIS perhaps or even Decca, can induce Reymaier to record more Bach. Or, how about the few extant compositions of Reinken? Oh, yes: there is another announced CD on the Jakobikirche organ of Buxtehude on the Arte Nova imprint, Bertelsmann’s answer to Naxos. But it has yet to show up on these shores. And the folks at Tower don’t want to know from it. Here’s hoping your editor will take kindly on further Organ Rumblings.

[Indeed yes. See below. Ed.]

Further Organ Emissions & Absolute Polarity

Before I proceed with our survey of organs, let me state something about absolute polarity, which is absolutely essential for enjoying CDs, particularly of the organ persuasion. Lars Fredell recently pointed out that most of the major CD labels — Sony, DG, Decca, Warner’s — reverse absolute phase or polarity. Polarity mystifies most of my students. Until I explain that it’s the difference between sucking and blowing. That gets their attention! Think about it: when the timpanist hits the big drums, it sends a shock wave away from the drumhead and toward your ears and/or a microphone. It’s called a positive waveform. Ideally, when reproducing sound, your speakers should also shove air away from themselves and toward your ears — same as what happened during the original recording. That’s absolute polarity, a faithful reproduction of the original air direction. Because some electronic stages flip polarity, we wind up with reverse polarity: our speakers are sucking in when they should be blowing out towards us.

So what’s a dummy to do? Well, it’s not always obvious with many recordings, as well as record company executives’ ears! So most do nothing. BUT some CD players and preamps have a polarity reverse switch. You can flip and flop back and forth and decide which setting gives you the best defined imaging and treble clarity. Some purists are deathly afraid of introducing anything in the playback chain that could affect the sound. As well they should. If it does affect the sound, they’re victims of crummy engineering, not design. But I offer a functional solution: what do you want your sound system to do? “Play CDs.” Well, if most of the CDs you own reverse absolute polarity, you can UN-reverse it at your amps’ speaker terminals. Swap both the hots and the grounds. Then your speakers will blow air toward you, even if the CD calls for sucking away from you! “But what about FM?” Chances are that the FM stations are playing CDs from the majors, with the polarity reversed anyhow. The only label I know that does NOT reverse polarity is the Brit Hyperion. For Hyperion I use my polarity reverse setting. Simple?

[Grieve’s thoughts and recommendations regarding polarity do not necessarily reflect those of the Editorial Aerie. In other words, this is a controversial subject. However, Grieve has forgotten more about organs than any of I or any of my acquaintances will ever know. Ed.]

Another subject relating to organ music is the placement of organs in churches. Let’s omit theatres and auditoria for the nonce. The older Gothic churches either had no organs at all or rather tiny ones, some portable, that you could stick almost anywhere, e.g., St Peter’s in Rome. For larger instruments, the Germans tended to go for the rear gallery, particularly after the organ was needed to support congregational singing. And some cathedrals went for the “swallow’s nest” up the side. The Brits took the most pragmatic step of all. They mounted organs atop the screen separating the choir from the congregation: the Rood Screen. And to hell with blocking the view! Actually, it’s the ideal spot acoustically. King’s College Chapel, among others, boasts a Renatus Harris case up on the choir screen. And even though the Renaissance organs were fairly small, they could still be quite loud. That’s determined by the voicing, not the number of stops.

Since the late 1400s, organs have kept to almost the same basic design. Even then there were organs with 2-3 keyboards + pedals, built around the Blockwerk: the basic metal, penny-whistle flue pipe, usually cast from lead originally, which imparted a rather singing, vocal tone. Later flue pipes, principals, began to contain a higher percentage of tin, imparting a brighter, more instrumental tone. Besides the basic 8 or 4-foot lengths, there were octaves and some harmonic pipes like a 12th or 16th (mutations) plus a whole group of pipes that sounded together, called mixtures, which add brilliant overtones to the basic sound.

Besides the basic whistle sound of the Blockwerk, other pipes were added: mostly in imitation of instruments of the Renaissance wind band: flutes, reeds (hobo, trommet, dulcian, bombarde, rankett, regal) used either as a chorus of different pitches or as solo voices. I’ve never seen it stated in histories, but I suspect part of the impetus for organ development was the Black Death of 1348. Town bands, which often provided music for church services were decimated or obliterated altogether. So a single player, with his mechanical imitations of wind instruments, could make do. With that bit of background, let’s revisit some famous organs.

The van Hagerbeer / Schnitger organ at the S. Laurenskerk, Alkmaar, Holland

This is the famous “Bach organ” Helmut Walcha used for his traversal of Bach organ works for Archiv starting in the l950s. Originally built between 1639 and 1646 by Germer Galtusz van Hagerbeer (how’s that for a name?) and revised by Franz Caspar Schnitger between 1723 and 1725 with proper Hamburger German reed stops, it was restored to its original a’=415 pitch by the Flentrop Orgelbouw in 1981-86. There are three manuals + pedals.

Piet Kee plays Buxtehude & Sweelinck Chandos CHAN 0514 (l989)

Kee is the presiding organist at the Alkmaar organ, as well as the S Bavo organ in Haarlem. Always deft and tasteful. Kee presents mostly Buxtehude, but with four Sweelinck pieces on an organ built just 18 years after Sweelinck’s death in 1621. The three-rank Cimbel mixture on the Rugpositief adds a silver shimmer in the Echo Fantasia. Recommended.

J.S. Bach: Orgelwerke Gustav Leonhardt Deutsche Harmonia Mundi 7868 (1988)

I know, I know — I had originally intended to treat music by J.S. separately, but this CD fits under the category of the Alkmaar organ. So sue me. Oh, yes: the Alkmaar organ lacks a 32’ pedal stop like the Jakobi organ, but it does have a 22’ bass Principal which is no slouch in the thunder division! Apart from a Toccata in D minor (not the famous one) and the Praeludium und Fuge in E minor, the remaining selections are all chorale arrangements from the cantatas and the Clavier-Ubung. Leonhardt serves ‘em up with sensitivity and makes the most of the silvery tone of the instrument. Not sure this one is still current, what with BMG’s upheavals.

J.S. BACH: Chorale (Orgelbuchlein) Marie-Claire Alain Erato 4509-91702-2 (1990)

Mlle Alain unfailingly remains faithful to the Bach score, if somewhat inflexibly so, with minimal ornaments. You’d never accuse her of improvising or winging these readings. Still in all, all the contrapuntal voices speak clearly and with dignified pacing. And the flue pipes, mixtures and reeds all come across shiny bright. You want “gravitas,” you gots.

Piet Kee plays Bach & Buxtehude Chandos CHAN 0501 (1988)

Here Kee gives us magisterial pacing in the Buxtehude, complete with phrasing and solid pedal reeds. The Bach Prelude and Fugue in E minor benefits from the Cimbel on top. And the Orgelbuchlein chorale preludes are well thought out with singing tone where required.

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