Celebrating the pipe organ, the King of Instruments
Thursday - The rains have returned, and after an early awakening and a bit of congestion at breakfast (the hotel was full, and everyone seemd to want to eat at exactly the same minute) we set out at 8AM for the Dominican Church in the heart of old downtown Vienna. Otto brought our coach as near as possible on the Ringstrasse, but this still left us several blocks to walk under umbrellas in a cool drizzle. The Dominican friars have occupied this property since 1226 (“Dominicanem” means “Dogs for the Lord”...woof!), and our host, Hans Haselböck, has been organist at the Dominican Church for 60 years (he recently turned 80), and if he stays in good health (he was in fine fettle) should be able to surpass Widor’s record in Paris (64 years).
The elegant, ornamented mid-18th century case encloses a late 19th century instrument by Rieger, renovated by Schuke in 1991. The original Positiv case (on the balcony rail) had been ‘vacated’ with the 1895 Rieger was installed (romantic organs didn’t have Positiv divisions), but Schuke built a new, separate Positiv organ (one keyboard, 9 stops) into that case, and after Haselböck’s eloquent improvisatory demonstration of the big organ, he was joined by our young Herr Kogert for some two-organ pieces by Padre Antonio Soler...fun to watch upstairs. Hans Haselböck, and his brother Franz, have been central figures and internationally-known representatives of the Austrian organ art, as players, teachers, and recording artists. I reminded our group that hearing Hans Haselböck improvise was the Viennese version of a visit to Dupre at St. Sulpice), experiencing a legend in person.
Just a few blocks away, through circuitous, narrow cobbled streets, is the University Church, almost overpowering in its Baroque ornamentation, a showpiece of Counter-Reformation decoration with ersatz marble pillars, gilding everywhere, and allegorical ceiling frescoes (covered by a room-length hanging promoting a local business whose funds were enabling restoration of the room). The very recent Späth organ was purpose-built in the manner of 19th century French organ master Aristide Cavaille-Coll, and proved to be an exceptional accomplishment (I had thought the Späth company had gone out of business...the workmanship, attention to detail, conception and realization of this superb project proves otherwise!), and if you closed your eyes, your ears would be totally convinced. Not that they eyes have anything to complain about...we do not encounter such casework on American organs with any regularity...incredible. The console is laid out in French manner, with the typical foot controls for reeds and couplers, but there’s also a servo-mechanism and electric combination action. Very slick. This organ deserves to be better-known, if only as a promotion of the work of Späth Orgelbau. Kogert played the 2nd Franck Choral, and it was most impressive in every way.
On to the Mozart House at Domgasse 5, a rather roomy flat on the third floor with a very cogent contemporary display of artifacts and manuscripts. Then we were ‘on our own’ for wandering in the heart of Vienna (we quickly found Doblinger Music, and lunch at Nordsee...nothing beats a fresh herring fillet sandwich; I doubt that McDonald’s would consider expanding their menu!), and then we assembled at the Hofburgkapelle, the Royal Court Chapel, a very modest-sized space where the Vienna Choirboys perform. The new Kuhn organ of 27 stops on two manuals is like an expanded teaching instrument, the ‘studio’ effect encouraged by the tight environment of the rather tiny choir loft (right up under the ceiling, I don’t know how they pack in 30+ singers and instrumentalists for the orchestral masses of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and the like...Kogert was playing continuo for the “Lord Nelson” Mass on the Sunday of our departure). Not much fun to play (though very effective Swell box) in such a confined space, though the sound blooms beautifully in the room.
Next, a return to the Michaelerkirche where Wolfgang Kogert had played his CD-release recital the previous Thursday. Our original plan was to visit the organ loft (not possible following last week’s recital), but we were prevented today by the fact that the whole church had been taken over by a film company shooting a wedding scene for an historic docu-drama about the life of Sisi (the outspoken Empress Elizabeth of Austria, focus of several cinema productions), so we had a different sort of ‘organ tour’...into the catacombs to view some ancient coffins and mummified remains. Three-hundred years of burials (rich folk only) were accommodated in this undercroft, and when the coffins were stacked too high, the remains were dumped out, covered with dirt, and a new stack was begun. So much for eternal rest.
Then back in the Hofburg area and the Augustinerkirche, home to a nifty 24-stop Reil (Dutch) Brothers organ, built to honor the Bach Tercentenary in 1985 (Vienna’s first ‘authentic’ Bach-style instrument, sort-of, but very nice), and a larger Rieger inside a stunning 1730 case by Johann Hencke. Robert Kovacs is one of the several organists on duty here (also at the Cathedral in Eisenstadt), and he played varied repertoire (Muffat, Bach, Kerll, Schmidt) to present each instrument in a very good light. I remember standing here, for nearly 2 hours in a totally packed church during a Sunday mass when last in Vienna (Mozart’s “Coronation” Mass performed)...a beautiful space and experience.
Now it’s 5:30PM, the drizzle has mostly stopped, already we’ve seen five churches, but the biggest one is saved for after supper. Several in the group opt out in order to attend “The Merry Widow” at the Volksoper, pianist Richard Ilya Tauber at the little Metallener Saal at the Musikverein, playing Schubert “Wanderer” and Brahms 3rd Sonata, or a concert (Haydn, Bartok, Brahms) by the Auryn Quartet at the Musikverein Brahms Saal, but after some free time in the main square and shopping streets, and supper, the majority of our group reassemble at the side door for a special up-close introduction to the 54-stop Rieger that has led worship at St. Stephen’s Cathedral since 1991. This church suffered bombing damage during WW2. The 125-stop post-war Kauffmann organ, created during a period when Vienna was a partitioned city, using donated materials from various German and Austrian companies, and not particularly successful as a result, remains a visual presence in the rear gallery. However, there’s no question that the Rieger (up front and to the right of the altar) has what it takes to fill this immense neo-Gothic space with compelling harmony. Ernst Wally (who, like so many of the organists that play for us, is in his 30s, amiable and very capable) generously demonstrates, and afterwards members of the group, though somewhat abashed, try their music on the organ, too. A fine end to another busy, interesting day.