Here is some really
unusual music from the 19th
century alongside some well-known pieces.
Dvořák’s Biblical Songs op. 99
can be heard quite often, normally with
piano accompaniment; there is also an
orchestral version. Who made the organ
accompaniments used here is not made
clear in the booklet, but they do underline
that the songs “belong in the church”.
Dvořák, ever the great melodist,
was really inspired when he wrote them
during roughly the same period that
also produced the “New World” symphony,
the F major string quartet and
the cello concerto. It is a pity that
there was room only for three of them.
On the other hand I
suppose that the main concern here was
the other two composers, who both belong
among the ranks of half-forgotten 19th
century masters. Rheinberger’s organ
music is of course heard now and then
and Naxos are in the process of recording
it with Wolfgang Rübsam; they have
so far (April 2005) reached volume 5.
The Six religious songs op. 157,
written in 1888, are actually premiere
recordings. The music is attractive
without being especially memorable.
My first impression was a certain dullness
but a second hearing was much more positive.
The Ave Maria could very well
find a place in the standard repertoire.
It was also a good
idea to intersperse the songs with some
organ pieces from the same period. The
Introduction and Fugue was a
nice acquaintance, played here with
real verve by Thomas Berning.
Peter Cornelius’s name
has more or less faded away from the
general music lover’s consciousness,
although he was an important figure
in his day. His comic opera, or Singspiel,
"The Barber of Bagdad" was
once frequently played and may still
get an outing in Germany once in a while.
There exist a couple of complete recordings,
one from the 1950s with Leinsdorf conducting
and a starry cast including Elisabeth
Schwarzkopf, Nicolai Gedda and Herrman
Prey. Still performed are his Christmas
Songs op 8, of which I have a lovely
recording with Elly Ameling. These Nine
sacred songs, forming a cycle entitled
Vater unser, i.e. Our Father,
are also "firsts". Compositionally
they are interesting in that Cornelius
uses the Gregorian Pater noster
as the basic thematic material for the
whole prayer. Here it is preceded with
the Gregorian original sung unaccompanied.
It is all interesting but to my mind
not on a par with the aforementioned
When it comes to the
performances I do have several serious
reservations. First of all the recording
balance emphasizes the organ at the
sacrifice of the singer. The recording
was made in a church with long resonance
and the singer is placed so that he
sounds immersed in the organ sound,
fighting a losing battle against the
instrument. Markus Lemke, a name new
to me, has a not inconsiderable bass-baritone
voice, surprisingly tenoral at the top.
He makes attempts to sing softly but
is then mercilessly swamped by the organ.
His basically beautiful voice is also
used less than discriminatingly, producing
sometimes raw fortes. There is also
a tendency to lose pitch on sustained
notes. As a matter of fact when I first
played the disc through my ordinary
loudspeakers I could hardly detect Lemke’s
voice. It took some time before I understood
that someone was singing behind the
organ. Listening through headphones
the voice came closer and I could appreciate
the singing more but I also noticed
the defects more clearly. Even then,
though, the singer was all too often
over-powered by the organ.
The organ is well reproduced
on its own and the Introduction and
Fugue is, as I have already mentioned,
impressive. The booklet has a short
essay in two languages (German and English)
about the music, a few lines about the
artists, a list of the organ stops and
the sung texts in the original German
(and in two cases Latin).
The disc as a whole
gives some valuable additions to the
sacred repertoire but, considering my
reservations, it should be approached
with caution. Try to listen before purchase.
Your ears may be sharper than mine.