Sietze de Vries, organ
Fugue State Records/JSB Records FSRCD007. 79’37
Jacob Praetorius, Reincken, Bach and improvisation
The recent reconstruction of the famous Hamburg Katherininkirche organ was major landmark in the organ world. Its nickname of the ‘Bach organ’ (or ‘ an organ for Bach’) is misleading, and relates to the visit of Bach in 1720. But it could equally, and with far more accuracy, be described as the ‘Scheidemann’ or ‘Reincken’ organ (Katherininkirche organists for nearly 100 years from 1629-1722), both of whom had far more influence on its development, and whose music it better represents. Its roots go back to about 1400, and it had reached an advanced state by 1605 when Hans Scherer the Younger built the sumptuous case, which survived until 1943. This was the organ inherited by Heinrich Scheidemann when he became organist around 1629. His commissioning of work by Fritzsche (who added a Brustwerk in 1631) and Stellwagen made the organ one of the most important late Renaissance organs in the world.
Scheidemann’s pupil, Johann Adam Reincken became his assistant in 1658, and organist on Scheidemann’s death in 1663. As was the custom of the day, he married one of Scheidemann’s daughters. By the time Bach visited, in 1720, Reincken had commissioned further work to the organ, including adding the 32’ pedal Großposaune and extended the 26’ pedal down to 32’ pitch. One of the reasons for the organ’s importance is that it is one of the few organs of that period to retain its late Gothic and Renaissance roots, and the only organ in Hamburg that avoided the Baroque reconstructions by Arp Schnitger that created the later mature North German Baroque organ.
My initial surprise at finding no Scheidemann on the CD was only partially reduced when I read Sietze de Vries’s argument for including a piece by Jacob Praetorius (also a pupil of Sweelinck) instead. A shame, but at least the 14’ Praetorius four-verse piece demonstrates the style of those important early Baroque Hamburg composers. And Reincken gets a good showing with his extraordinarily complex 21’ chorale fantasia An Wasserflüssen Babylon, although I could have done without de Vries’s addition of his own bombastic version of the chorale segued onto Reincken final cadence. This was the piece that so impressed Bach that he copied it out when he was a 15 year-old student in Lüneburg. When he played the Katherininkirche organ in 1720, Bach improvised on the same theme for half and hour in honour of the aging Reincken – who returned the compliment by stating “I thought that this art was dead, but I see that it lives in you”.
After these two monumental works, the gentle Bach Von Gott will ich night lassen comes as a bit of a relief, but that is soon aurally shattered by the enormous registration used for his Fantasia super: Komm heiliger Geist, another chance to hear the organ at full blast. There then follows a 30’ improvisation in neo-baroque style. Although this does demonstrate some colours of the organ that has so far been unexplored, I wonder if a chorale fantasia on An Wasserflüssen Babylon might have given more scope for exploring the colours of the organ. That said, the improvisation is impressive, and finishes with a 9’ fantasia using the full registration of the organ.
Sietze de Vries’s playing is impressive, and shows an obvious understanding of the organ and the performance implications. But he does make a few curious registration choices, the most surprising being the omission of the distinctive solo and pedal registrations specifically recorded as being used by Jacob Praetorius (and, later, Matthias Weckmann) in Hamburg. The Katherininkirche organ is one of the very few capable of reproducing those registrations. On one occasion (track 12), de Vries gets frustratingly close to the Oberwerk solo registration of Trommete 8, Zinke 8, Nassat 3, Gemshorn 2, Hohlfleute 4, but only gets three of the five stops. Such an omission really deserves an explanation.
The CD booklet includes an essay (in German and English) by Frits Eishout of Flentrop Orgelbouw about the reconstructed organ, and explains a curious back-story about the genesis of the CD. It is sponsored by a Christian evangelist in The Netherlands to benefit his missionary work in Amsterdam! His introduction concludes with the hope that the CD will “encourage your solidarity with the work of missionaries”! But, whatever your views on missionary work in Amsterdam might be, this is an important CD of an important organ.