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Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments

NEWS FROM AEOLUS

A refreshing breeze blows in from Germany
by Michael Barone
September, 2001

From progam document #0136

Rough-and-tumble are the commercial challenges in the classical record business. Audiences are fragmented, distribution is sketchy, profit margins are slender. The announcement last year of a major retrenchment by BMG, corporate owner of the once proud RCA Red Seal label, similar disturbances at Philips and Warner, and, most recently, the maneuverings by Tower Records to seriously restrict their interaction with import and small-label distributors-these are but the latest in an ongoing series of seismic shocks to the body classical.

But even upon stormy seas, some independent companies (of which there are many) manage to stay their course and have countered with advanced Web presences in support of very interesting and strong catalogs. Theirs is niche marketing at its best. What follows is a report on one such operation which, it would seem, has exchanged commercial tempest for a calm zephyr. Perhaps theirs is a direct link to the gods.

Five years ago, producer/engineer Christoph Martin Frommen established the twin classical labels Aeolus and Unda Maris. While a few early offerings explored piano and ‘early music’ arenas, without question the primary focus of the Aeolus catalog is the pipe organ. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Aeolus was God of the Winds, and Unda Maris, meaning ‘waves of the sea’, is the name of a particularly lovely sounding organ stop.)

Frommen has drawn upon talent mostly little known outside Germany (or, at least, Europe). But these are very interesting players who are well matched with mostly exceptional instruments in lively and exciting environments. In the dozen albums reviewed here, the product is uniformly engaging, with an even balance of 18th, 19th and early 20th century repertoire explored plus several CDs devoted to improvisations.

Booklet annotations are thorough, graphic values are high (also on the Web), and Frommen’s microphones seem always to succeed in capturing vivid and enticing aural images. An aural feast.

All Aeolus albums are available directly from the company’s Web site. Perhaps more conveniently, in the United States you can order from either the Organ Literature Foundation (45 Norfolk Road, Braintree, MA 01284-5918; phone, 871-848-1388; email, organlitfnd@juno.com) or the Organ Historical Society (P.O. Box 26811; Richmond, VA 23230; phone, 804-353-9226; online at www.ohscatalog.org).

For more details, investigate the Aeolus Web site, www.aeolus-music.com, which is lavish and informative and soon to be upgraded with increased English-language content. Here follows a brief overview of present Aeolus stock.

Aeolus CD-10021-IMPROVISATIONEN: Ansgar Wallenhorst, organist [DDD]; 70:49. CONTENTS: Wallenhorst: Variations on a Noël, Entre le boeuf et l’âne gris; Epitaph, based on Nelly Sachs’Landschaft aus Schreien; Improvisation on the Gospel of Saint Mark, XIII/24-25; Improvised Symphony on Gregorian Themes of Penitence: Invocabit me; Reminiscere; Laetare Jerusalem; Judica me Deus

Ansgar Wallenhorst was born in 1976. He trained first in Kleve and Dinslaken, then at the Würzburg Conservatory (with G. Kaunzinger) and later in Paris (with O. Latry & T. Escaich). He was between the ages of 18 and 20 when these recordings were made at Saint Mauritius Church, Münster (1882 Fleiter, II/22), Quirinus-Münster in Neuss (1907 Seifert, IV/85), Saint Agnes Church, Cologne (1989 Rieger, III/50), and Saint Matthias Church, Berlin-Schönberg (1958 Seifert, IV/74).

Boy, can this kid fox trot-yet he goes about his work without giving you the feeling that he is showing off at every turn. Wallenhorst uses largely unhackneyed themes in a cogent, often profoundly satisfying, and sometimes charmingly simple, manner. The Cochereau model is obvious but not slavishly copied, and against Cochereau’s own recorded improvisations these by Wallenhorst can be compared without embarrassment. Ansgar provides a brief, thoughtful, and humble essay on the art of improvisation.

Frommen’s recordings are superbly and consistently lifelike and involving. The organs all enjoy resonant acoustics, and even the sprawling, eclectic, electric-actioned instrument at Saint Matthias Church makes a surprisingly, and particularly, good impression. Tri-lingual annotations add to the experience as they describe the thematic evolution of the Symphony. What a way to start a new business venture, sailing the high seas of inspiration! Wallenhorst is a talent to watch, and his disc demands to be heard.

 

Aeolus CD-10031-L’ORGUE CAVAILLÉ-COLL: Otto Krämer Improvises at the Abbey of Saint Ouen, Rouen [DDD]; 69:17. CONTENTS: Krämer: Messe de Pentecôte (seven movements); Antiphonae ad Magnificat (seven versets inspired by the “O” Antiphons)

Soloist Krämer and producer Frommen studied together at the Musikhochschule in Düsseldorf. A later chance meeting and Krämer’s subsequent winning of two improvisation prizes brought about this ‘dream project’ involving the famous 1890 Cavaillé-Coll organ in Rouen, taped in 1996. Only after the elapse of another three years were appropriate chant verses sung by Stefan Klöcker (according to first-millennial manuscripts) and recorded at Knechtsteden Basilica, and these are effectively interspersed between the improvised organ movements.

The Mass’s five ‘ordinary’ parts here are supplemented by two additional movements, a fanfare before the Gospel Alleluia, and an intermezzo before Communion. Resplendent and mysterious, the voice of this Michelangelo of Organs would be reward enough, but Krämer’s interpolations have their own satisfying substance, with many adroit turns of phrase and harmony; they reveal the manifold beauties of Cavaillé-Coll’s masterpiece but also justify repeated hearing on their own merits. I particularly enjoyed the cheeky drollness of the Trio in this context of otherwise respectful solemnity and grandeur.

The following ‘Suite’ is less coherent, and the connections between chant and organ are more programmatic than musically thematic, but one’s appreciation for Krämer’s thoughtful process is not less intense. However, it’s necessary to read the antiphon texts to fully appreciate his sound-painting of them, and the presence of the sung chants, while an acceptable change of texture, is more a reminder of that necessity than an essential musical presence. Still, the smooth voice of tenor Stefan Klöckner is faultless. Particularly memorable in this group are the fourth movement depicting “the Root of Jesse . . . ensign of the people [which will] rise up . . .” and the following, luminous image of the “Dawn of the East, brightness of light eternal, Sun of Justice.” Several photographs of the instrument in its home aid our dreams and awe-inspired meditations. Overall, this is a salutary spiritual exercise with bun-rippling audio.

Aeolus CD-10041-HOMMAGE a ANDRÉ FLEURY: Denis Comtet performs at the Church of Saint-François-Xavier, Paris (1878 Fermis-1993 Dargassies (III/64) [DDD]; 63:20. CONTENTS: Fleury: Fantasie (1968); Prélude, Andante et Toccata (1931); Carillon on Victimae Paschali laudes (1945); Second Symphony (1947); In Memoriam Jehan Alain (1990)

From the winning of his Conservatoire Premier Prix in 1926 (as a pupil of Dupré) until his death in 1995, the amiable André Fleury lived in the shadow-both artistically and to some extent geographically-of the greater creative talents of his generation, Messiaen, Duruflé, Langlais, and Alain. After a successful 15-year stint as organist at Saint-Augustin, during which he was an active and favored recitalist in the French capitol, Fleury left Paris in 1948 for a cathedral post in Dijon, and in that city’s conservatory taught piano and organ for 22 satisfying years. He returned to Paris in 1971 as co-organist at Saint Eustache and professor at the Schola Cantorum.

Though his virtuosity was legendary, as was his kindness and upstanding character, Fleury’s few and relatively conservative compositions may represent only an interesting footnote to the progressive and more prolific output of other figures on the 20th-century French scene. But certainly they have as much to tell us about their time as do Guilmant’s works of his. Particularly memorable on this disc is the entire Second Symphony, quietly profound and ultimately brilliant, with its echoes of Vierne and Alain, and the sunny, jazzy Toccata which ends the Tryptique. The Fantasie, if anything more conservative than the pieces from the ’30s and ’40s, may be a conscious neo-classic homage to Buxtehude, while the brooding In Memoriam, Fleury’s last composition, honors his friend with emotive dignity. Comtet, who as titulaire knows this instrument intimately, plays with commitment and flair.

 

Aeolus CD-10051-LE GRAND ORGUE DOM BEDOS RESTAURÉ: Francis Chapelet plays at Abbatiale Sainte-Croix Bordeau (1754 Bedos-1985 Quoirin, V/45) [DDD]; 62:45. CONTENTS: Couperin: Offertoire sur les grands jeux, from Messe des Paroisses. DeGrigny: Five verses on Veni Creator Spiritus. Guilain: Suites Nos. 1 and 2. Dandrieu: Fugue on Ave Maris Stella; Offertoire. Chapelet: Improvisation sur les jeux de fonds

As reconstructed by Pascal Quoirin from a substantial corpus of older components, the organ at the Church of the Holy Cross in Bordeaux is one of history’s miraculous survivals. As completed in 1748, the imposing original was built by the famous Benedictine monk and author Francois Dom Bedos de Celles, whose book L’Art du Facteur d’Orgues is the reference concerning matters of the classic French organ.

The Bordeaux organ is proof of the Dom Bedos pudding, so to speak, and Francis Chapelet, a long-time champion of historic instruments and repertoire, serves us up the extremities of extravagance and elegance for which such instruments and their period composers were acclaimed. The Grand Jeux chorus of trumpets, clarions, cornets, and bombards makes a stunningly brilliant and powerful sound, taut and muscular, yet vigorous and athletic. The Plein Jeux ensemble of diapasons through mixtures is stately and cool, with a silvery glitter. Flutes, solo reeds, and mutations all speak with eloquence and/or poetry, and the room supports everything in a full, warm resonance.

Interpretations are buoyant, and appropriately filled with the color and emotion of court and theatre. The booklet notes, only in French, give detailed background on the builder, his famous publication, this instrument, its considerable tribulations over the past two and a half centuries and remarkable recent revival, the artist, the repertoire played-even details of specific registrations used for each movement.

The Grigny versets are enhanced by alternatum chants in French, the Guilain suites with chants in Latin, all sung with alacrity by men from Ensemble Orfeo led by Francois Richard. If the historic fabric here has been reworked to sound new, should we complain? Considering the French-style pedalboard and evidence of six or seven wedge-style bellows with pump handles behind the organ, this is the way it was. Wonderful!

 

Aeolus CD-10061-REGER: ORGELWERK GRÖSSTEN STYLS. Stefan Schmidt plays at Saint Mary’s Basilica, Kevelaer, Germany (1907-1981 Seifert, IV/128 [DDD]; 75:36. CONTENTS: Reger: Fantasy & Fugue on B-A-C-H, Op. 46; Fantasy on the Chorale Alle Menschen müssen sterben, Op. 52, no. 1. Fantasy & Fugue, Op. 135b (original version)

Here the booklet does not reveal the extent to which a thorough post-war overhaul has altered the original character of this turn-of-the-century instrument. Certainly the three horizontal reeds, modeled after Cavaillé-Coll’s work at Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Paris add a bit of non-Germanic flavor, but overall the grand and weighty sounds from Kevelaer are perfect for Reger’s dramatic and dynamic pages. Heavens, is it the very gods themselves wrestling with aesthetic issues as we sit by in fear and trembling?

What marvelous rumbling and roaring this is, and when Schmidt begins the “Alle Menschen” fantasy, it is clear that our very souls are in the balance. No organ, other than a German Romantic one, can create these same effects of dark and light, dense gloom and revelatory grace. Excitement in this music may be achieved in various ways, but the drawn-out tension of Schmidt’s interpretations suits the situation well.

 

Aeolus CD-10071-MOZART. Michelle Leclerc plays at Saint Stephen’s Cathedral in Sens (1734 Mangin/1990 Boisseau & Cattiaux, IV/48) [DDD]; 76:46. CONTENTS: Mozart: Overture in C, K. 399; Church Sonata in C, K. 336; Fantasia in f, K. 594; Andante in F, K. 616; Fantasia in f, K. 608; Adagio in C, K. 356; Veroneser Allegro, K. 72a; Leipzig Gigue, K. 574; Fugue in g, K. 401; Adagio in b, K. 540; Adagio & Rondo in c, K. 617

Despite Mozart’s fascination with pipe organs, evidenced by his comments in letters and his many visits to important instruments while on tour, the circumstances of his life (no real market for organ music, plus his phenomenal improvisational skill) left him with little reason to compose much for the instrument. And that situation leaves us with the need to make do with hints, suppositions, and arrangements.

Madame Leclerc’s zesty playing presents a convincing case for these items, whether they were originally intended for solo organ or not. I particularly enjoyed her transcription of the Church Sonata (K. 336), complete with a tidy little cadenza of her own, and the Intrada and Fugue (K. 399), which, though part of a suite for piano, cries out for an organ’s splendor.

The Sens Cathedral instrument, of which Leclerc is titulaire, has been creatively reconstituted and would be similar in sound to instruments that Mozart played in France. (We’ll not argue the matter of just how much pedaling Mozart would have done on a French organ. This one has a modern-style 30-note pedalboard, and it is used fully.) Compared with the Dom Bedos organ (above), the tone here is bright but somewhat less polished (not a deficit). Some buoyant flute stops simply make you smile, and who among us has enough opportunity for that?

 

Aeolus CD-10081-LANGLAIS: SUITES POUR GRAND ORGUE. Pierre Cogen plays at Holy Spirit Church, Mannheim (1990 Göckel, III/44) [DDD]; 77:41. CONTENTS: Langlais: Suite Médiévale (five movements); Suite Breve (four movements); Suite Française (10 movements)

With so many German organists going to France to record, perhaps it is only fair that Messr. Cogen travelled to Mannheim to play this recital of music by his former teacher and colleague. After all, Langlais’own international tours took him to organs of every sort and, as it turns out, the Göckel instrument is as good as (or better than) many French ones. Perhaps it was easier to access this than the lauded Cavaillé-Coll at Saint Clothilde in Paris, where Cogen was co-titulaire with Langlais from 1976-1987 and titulaire himself from 1988 until his retirement in 1994.

The compelling pagentry, archaic mystery, and Gregorian-inspired lyricism of the Medieval Suite make clear why this has remained one of the most popular Langlais scores. The Short Suite is not nearly so inevitable as a unit, though its elements are engaging. The French Suite really is a book of fine if disparate movements which benefit from being sampled individually. Particularly enticing are the Arabesque sur les flutes and the Messiaen-like Trio.

Everything is superbly and sensitively played, and Cogen’s program notes add to the feeling that this project was motivated in homage with real admiration. The 20-bit digital recording is totally transparent and perfectly balanced, as is the case in every one of these Aeolus productions.

 

Aeolus CD-10091-BLANC:“Live Improvisations.” Frédéric Blanc plays at Chartres Cathedral (1971 Danion-Gonzales, IV/67), Münster-Basilica, Bonn (1961 Klais, IV/69), Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Angouleme (1964 Beuchet, III/55) and the Basilica of Saint Sernin, Toulouse (1889 Cavaillé-Coll, III/54) [DDD]; 71:30. CONTENTS: Blanc: Introduction, Prelude, Fugue, Variations & Finale (Chartres); Improvisation on Two Themes (Bonn); Five pieces: Fresque; March; Fileuse; Scherzando; Arabesque; Improvisation libre sur un theme de Naji Hakim; Poeme (Angouleme); Fantasie (Toulouse)

No net? No airbags or seatbelts? In these days of legislated safety, it is encouraging that organists are still willing (and allowed!) to risk honor and reputation by launching off into potentially dangerous and uncharted seas. Equally amazing is how many of their ephemeral improvisations are subjected to (and survive) the repeated scrutiny afforded by recording.

Born in 1967 and trained by Fleury, Alain, Cogen, and Duruflé-Chevalier, Mr. Blanc’s facility has won him sufficient improvisation prizes to launch a successful international career. The six selections here chart his progress from 1989 to 1997. In the longer works, process may be more involving than product, but moments of delicious rapture are achieved, particularly in the five pieces taped at Angouleme (where Blanc was appointed organist in 1999).

 

Aeolus CD-10101-FRANÇOISE-HENRI HOUBART Plays the Great Organ of Bayeux Cathedral (1862 Cavaillé-Coll, III/43). Aeolus CD-10101 [DDD]; 51:05. CONTENTS: Boëly: Fantasy & Fugue in B-flat, Op. 18. Schumann: 6 Fugues on B-A-C-H, Op. 60. Boëly: Three Pieces (Duo de cornet et de Cromorne; Dialogue de Hautbois et Cromorne; Grand-Choeur). Schubert: Fugue in e, D. 952

One reads a cautionary tale in the history of the organs at Bayeux Cathedral. An instrument from the 13th century, variously enlarged over time, was destroyed by the Huguenot Wars in 1562. The new instrument from 1597, also somewhat expanded over the years, survived the French Revolution and subsequent intrigues until 1844, when political maneuvering led to a contract with John Abbey for yet another new instrument. The old one was removed, but Abbey proved incapable of providing its replacement (he was bankrupt by 1853), and Aristide Cavaillé-Coll agreed to use the retained Renaissance-era case (expanded and made more elegant in 1848), some preserved older pipework, and Abbey’s new chests in his own 43-stop design which was completed in 1862.

That organ (along with a small C-C choir organ from 1861) remains essentially intact today and sounds superb following the Renaud-Ménoret restoration of 1998. Neither the scale of the room (relatively intimate) nor the scaling of the organ (less broad then is typical of C-C) in any way detracts from a sonority which supports these elegant, straightforward, and unselfconscious interpretations of early- and mid-19th-century works.

In a way, all of the music relates to Bach or, by extension, the notion of ‘fugue’. Schubert’s original, for four-hands-no-feet, gains utility in this one-man arrangement. Boëly, the first to champion Bach in France, lost his job because his music was considered too austere and demanding, though these pieces are melodious and elegant, if old-fashioned. Schumann honored Bach with works written for pedal-piano that are welcomed by and well-suited to an organ’s character. Though not a splashy showcase, the material here produces a most satisfying soirée.

 

Aeolus CD-10111-BACH: VOR DEINEN THRON. Suzanne Chaisemartin plays at the Church of Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Paris (1974 Kern, IV/49) [DDD]; 67:43. CONTENTS: Bach: Prelude & Fugue in c, S. 546; Orgelbüchlein Chorales (S. 642, 605, 607, 609); Piece d’orgue in G, S. 572; Partita, Christ, der du bist der helle Tag, S. 766; Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, S. 658; Jesus Christus, unser Heiland, S. 665; Trio in c, S. 585; Toccata and Fugue in F, S. 540; Vor deinen Thron tret’ ich, S. 668

Madame Chaisemartin studied with Marcel Dupré, deputized for him at Saint Sulpice during his recital tours, and since 1949 has been titulaire of the Cavaillé-Coll instrument at the Church of Saint-Augustin, Paris. Here she plays a modern classic organ with piquant, bright tone attuned to the requirements of German Baroque counterpoint.

She maintains a high level of thoughtful artistry, but plays in what now seems like a very personal, individualized approach to this music, with dignified and rock-solid rhythm and a modestly aloof, smooth legato touch. Fugual progress is accompanied by varied registrations; the G-major Fantasy concludes slowly on quiet flutes; touch is regular with articulations at phrase endings rather than in smaller sub-sets. Panache prevails, and the interpretations reflect the booklet’s photo portrait of the performer: high-class, sharp-eyed, stylish, serious, and with a hint of a smile.

 

Aeolus CD-10121-KARG-ELERT: ULTIMATE ORGAN WORKS. Elke Völke plays at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Bremen (1894/1905 Sauer, IV/98) [DDD]; 68:28. CONTENTS: Karg-Elert: Chaconne and Fugue Trilogy with Chorale in b, Op. 73; Symphony in f#, Op. 143; Prologus-Allegro briososo-Scherzo-Corale-Scherzo-Largo-Vivace quasi Toccata-Coda con Cadenza

“Don’t the music people even notice that what so annoys them about my works and seems to them to be illogical, bizarre, unclear, written in ‘Sturm und Drang’ is no matter of chance, … that behind what seems incomprehensible there lies quite a precise, logical system?”

This quotation may provide some insight as to why Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s shorter pieces have found a more appreciative audience than have his larger works; they are simply easier to swallow. But when a major K-E score is tackled by someone who really believes in it, as here, the composer’s protest seems valid.

Aurally tracking the progress of a chaconne ostinato may not be all that tricky, but keeping track of 35 variants (plus the following, vast Fugue Trilogy and Chorale), while coping with the daunting technical challenges the composer throws at the player, is no easy task. Elke Völke proves herself more than capable. Winner of both the ‘soloist’ and ‘concert’ diplomas from the Mannheim College of Music in 1996, she’s also a degreed musicologist, published author and critic. Confident though she is, I expect that in 10 more years of playing she may achieve the total effortlessness of gesture that is not quite present in these performances.

Not that she struggles-she does not!-rather, she lacks that ultimate iron grip and inexorable drive from which the music might benefit. Opus 73 (from 1908, lasting 35:44) is prolix and dense. Op. 143 (from 1930 and hardly concise at 32:39) is in eight succinct sections, and while harmonically more advanced is also emotionally more convincing than the earlier work. Karg-Elert did have a ‘precise, logical system’ behind most of what he wrote, but an editor, or a personal trainer with a whip, might have encouraged a somewhat different result.

Even so, as with a dense and prickly novel which exhausts even as it coaxes you through page after page after page, there is much here worth experiencing, and Ms. Völke and this vintage Sauer organ help us search it out.

 


Aeolus CD-10131-BACH: DIE KUNST DER FUGE. Gerd Zacher plays at the former Premonstratensian Monastery in Niederehe (1714 König-1998 Fasen, I/13 ) [DDD]; 68:30. CONTENTS: Bach: Contrapuncti Nos. 1-11, 14

Zacher’s interpretations are, in his words, “just within the permissible, or wished for, or perceptible,” and he applies the art of license to these extraordinary pages with provocative, if not always pleasing, results. Using a 12-stop, single-manual organ from 1714 by Balthasar Könkig (of unrefined voice and in mean-tone temperament), Zacher professes to follow Marpurg’s suggestion in the introduction to the 1752 edition of The Art of Fugue by bringing “the charms of a fugue to the sensibility of the listener.”

The wise, ancient quality of the instrument, while occasionally grating, is coupled with Zacher’s ‘relaxed’ tempos for a curiously down-to-earth expression, though Zacher’s prevailing instability of pulse often gives the effect of good sight-reading. More kindly put, the playing evokes an image of a fine musician in fond and intimate communion with a favored score, unconcerned about an audience. Zacher gives us Fugues 1-11, omits the mirror fugues and canons entirely, and concludes with the incomplete Contrapunctus No. 14. Other recordings more fully, and more engagingly, present this fabled opus. Perhaps no version of The Art of Fugue will be perfect. This one, the single disappointment from Aeolus, is not.