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Wilhelm MIDDELSCHULTE (1863-1943)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg Variations arranged for Organ (1926)
Jurgen Sonnentheil (organ)
rec. 18-21 September 2005, Gerald Woehl Organ, St. Petrus Canisius, Freidrichshafen, Germany
CPO 777 215-2 [50:51 + 50:17]


“My window faces the sea, and I overlook an endless flatness of shining ice and snow. A white desert! Boundless and hopeless. And behind me lies the town, just as black as this is white. I sit the whole day in the hotel; my most serious occupation is regulating the central heating. The result to my art is that I oscillate between headaches and freezing. The moment when the headache stops and the freezing begins is indeed “ganz scheen,” as Caufall would say. I try other work too, but only second class. Middelschulte is going to bring me an essay by Bernard Ziehn to-day, on Bach’s uncompleted fugue. Comes very à propos. They are both distinguished men and - in order to fill up the time - I have written a nice essay about them for the Signale, and called it: “Die Gothiker von Chicago, Ill.”

So wrote Busoni in a letter to his wife, written from Chicago, and dated 15 January 1910. By “the Signale” he meant the Signale für die Musikalische Welt, and communications with Berlin must have been pretty good since his essay, ‘Die “Gotiker” von Chicago, Illinois’ seems to have been published the very next month. In it he praises, very lavishly, the skills of Wilhelm Middelschulte, declaring his abilities as a contrapuntalist to be such as to deserve a place alongside Bach and Reger, no less.

Middelschulte was born at Werne near Dortmund – and, indeed, he died there too. As a young man he studied at the Institut für Kirchenmusik in Berlin, studying organ, piano and composition. By 1888 he had become organist of St. Luke in Berlin. But in 1991 he emigrated to the USA, taking up the first of a series of posts in Chicago and elsewhere in the mid-West. He was organist at a number of major churches and professor of organ at a number of American conservatories. His students included the young Virgil Fox. From 1925 he was also Postgraduate professor of organ and music theory at the Institut für Kirchenmusik in Berlin. He returned to Germany permanently in 1939. During the 1920s and beyond he built a reputation as one of the finest interpreters of Bach.

His own compositions have attracted relatively little attention – although readers will note that this is the fourth volume in a series from cpo. Volumes one, two and three have all been reviewed in these pages. His work as an arranger of Bach looms large on these CDs – not least in the case of this fourth volume. Middelschulte’s friend Busoni had completed his arrangement for piano of the Goldberg Variations in 1914. Busoni treated the original with a good deal of freedom, omitting a number of variations altogether and in some cases elaborating or rewriting very extensively. Middelschulte’s version for organ takes fewer such liberties. We get all the variations and, in essence his arrangement respects Bach’s style and is steeped in an obvious familiarity with the conventions of the baroque organ repertoire.

Of course there are changes and additions. So, for example, in the fourteenth variation he adds some rich contrapuntal development and some unexpected harmonies  - and yet the results are essential Bachian. In the twentieth variation he develops four voices out of the original’s two. His use of organ colours is inventive without ever being remotely gaudy and he resists any temptation to unleash the full weight of the kind of modern organ he was writing for. Most of the writing is evidently marked pianissimo to mezzo-forte and there are very few moments (if any) when polyphonic complexity is sacrificed to, or lost in, the sheer wash of sound that German romantic organ music can sometimes turn into.

In his booklet notes, Hans-Dieter Mayer explains that Middelschulte made a lot of additions and changes in his manuscript copy of the score – after publication of the printed version. In many cases these are additional voices which add to the complex texture of the music. In this recording Jürgen Sonnentheil plays the work with repetitions – playing the music first as printed and then with the additions which the composer made to the published score. The results make rewarding listening. I suspect that Bach himself would have taken a good deal of pleasure at some of the things Middelschulte has done with his music – though doubtless there are things he would be less fond of too!

Sonnetheil is a persuasive advocate for this arrangement; the 1997 organ by Gerald Woehl (a specification is provided) sounds a handsome instrument and the recorded sound is clear but not without warmth. This might perhaps, in the grand musical scheme of things, seem a mere curiosity. But it is actually a work of some considerable substance, a work which will surely reward the attentions of Bachians wanting a fresh perspective on one of the master’s major works, as well as those with an interest in the organ repertoire of the early twentieth century.

Glyn Pursglove


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