Dynamisch: the ‘Wind Organ’

Die Orgeln der Stadtkirche Biel
Pascale Van Coppenolle
Tulip Records. Ture 201521. 2CDs 75’03+ 64’24

CD1. ‘From Hexachord to Chromatiscism’: Scheidt, Byrd, Frescobaldi, Bull, Sweelinck, Bach, Liszt
CD2. ‘Wind organ’ improvisations: Whistle for a While (Hans Koch, bass clarinet), Clusterizing (organ solo), Zebra (Jonas Kocher, accordion), Fusion (Hannah E. Hänni, voice), Sprinkling (Luke Wilkins, violin).

The city of Biel (official known as Biel/Bienne) in the Swiss canton of Berne lies on the boundary of the German and French speaking areas of Switzerland, hence its bilingual name. Rather appropriately, its town church contains two organs which also speak in two (or more) languages, from ancient to (very) modern, as represented on this fascinating double CD.

The first CD is based on the use by composers of the Hexachord, the first six notes of the major scale, usually written as Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la. The first three pieces (Scheidt, Byrd, and Frescobaldi) are played on a modern (Metzler, 1994) version of the late Gothic organ of 1517 that briefly survived in the church until the Reformation authorities dismantled it just 10 years later. It has two manuals with pull-down pedals. The compass of the two manuals is the usual Gothic/Renaissance one of C-a” and F-a”, similar to the 1558 organ in the Innsbruck Hofkirche. Tuned in a modified meantone temperament, the Hauptwerk has split semitones on the D# and A flat keys. It hangs on the wall in ‘swallows-nest’ fashion above and between two nave arches.

Stadtkirche CH-Biel/BEThe main (west-end) organ is a 2011 Metzler, generally in the broadly Bach-inspired eclectic school of organ design. Two manuals and most of the pedal are in Germanic Baroque style, while the third manual (a Schwellwerk) includes more romantically inclined stops, here demonstrated in Liszt’s massive set of variations on Bach’s Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen. This organ is used for the final four tracks of CD1, with music ranging from Bull to Liszt. The temperament is described as Leicht ungleichschwebende, which I take to mean a slightly modified equal temperament. It certainly shows no surprise at John Bull’s wanderings through all the chromatic keys in his Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

It is the fourth manual of the 2011 Metzler organ that makes this instrument special, and gives this CD is name of Dynamisch. One of the outcomes of a research project (INNOV-ORGAN-UM) by Bern University of Arts and the Swiss National Science Foundation (see here), the fourth manual is a Winddynamische (dynamic wind) organ, with five stops and an array of mechanical devices to alter the sound by changing the wind pressure, altering the depth of touch, changing the initial speech of pipes, and another device for sforzando. Although there is a brief use of this at an appropriate moment in the Liszt Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen (at about 11’), the whole of the second CD is devoted to improvisations using the extraordinary effects of the Wind Organ when combined with the rest of the organ. One is for solo organ; the rest for organ and voice or instruments.

SchiffshochwandorgelPascale Van Coppenolle plays with a good sense of period style in this wide-ranging repertoire. Her sense of space and timing in the Liszt is outstanding, the clarity of organ’s voicing and Van Coppenolle’s articulation exposing far more of Liszt’s inner musical workings than is usually the case with romantic organs of Liszt’s own time. Although William Byrd might be surprised to hear his Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la played on a two manual organ with a regal stop and a Zimbelglöcklein (very different from organs in England at his time), Bull experienced larger organs in the final years of his life in Antwerp, so some of his pieces justify using a wider range of registrations, including reeds.  In the Bach Pièce d’Orgue, Pascale Van Coppenolle quite correctly makes the last chord of the central section short, as indicated in the score, but often ignored by performers. In another change from the usual performance of this piece, she takes most of the final chromatically complex section quietly, over a gentle 32’ bass.

The five substantial improvisations on the second CD point to the organ and music of the future, not only in the use of the Wind Organ, but also in the process of improvisation and the merging of two musicians, as heard on four of the five tracks.  The range of sounds produced by the organ and the four different instruments (and voice) is both extraordinary and exciting, as is the musical imagination of the performers. It will test the dynamic range of your music system – the end of track 3, for example, is very quiet.

Further information on the organs can be found here.

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