Many German composers of the early 17th century went
to Italy to study the newest musical trends. Samuel Scheidt, one of
the main representatives of the North German organ school, did not do
this. He went to Amsterdam instead, to study with the famous organist
and composer Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck. But although Sweelinck, as far
as we know, never left the Netherlands, he was very well aware of everything
that was happening all over Europe.
For most of his life Scheidt was connected in some
way or another to his home town of Halle. It was there that he experienced
the devastating consequences of the Thirty Years’ War. After his return
from Amsterdam he became organist at the court of the administrator
of the Archbishopric of Magdeburg in Halle, but in 1625, as a result
of the war, the court dispersed. Scheidt lost his job and was left without
any income; he also lost his sizeable fortune due to inflation. He was
forced to take a teaching job to feed his children. In 1636 his four
children died from the plague. Only in 1638, when Duke August of Saxony
became the new administrator, did he return as Hofkapellmeister and
start to compose vocal music for the limited number of musicians the
chapel had at its disposal.
In 1624 Scheidt published the first of three volumes
with keyboard music, entitled ‘Tabulatura Nova’. This collection was
a tribute to his teacher Sweelinck – Scheidt even included a series
of variations on the same song (Est ce Mars) on which Sweelinck based
his own set of variations. But at the same time it can be seen as a
catalogue of the musical forms en vogue in Europe in the first half
of the 17th century, like toccatas, fantasias, chorale variations, variations
on popular songs and dances. As was common practice in those days, most
pieces – sacred or secular – could be played on both the church organ
and on smaller keyboard instruments in courts and private homes, like
the spinet, harpsichord and clavichord.
One of the features of the chorale-based works is that
they follow the stanzas of the chorales. Therefore every variation can
be left out and the stanza be sung instead, or each variation can be
used as a prelude to the chorale to be sung. This practice is reflected
here by inserting the appropriate chorale settings from Scheidt’s ‘Tabulaturbuch
hundert geistlicher Lieder und Psalmen’ of 1650 and the ‘Cantional’
As far as I know this is the first recording of the
complete first volume of the Tabulatura Nova, which is most welcome,
considering its historical importance and musical quality. Two excellent
historical instruments are used. The organ in Lüdingworth (North
Germany) was initially built by Antonius Wilde in 1598, and enlarged
by Arp Schnitger in 1682/83 and was restored and partly reconstructed
by Jürgen Ahrend in 1981/82. It is tuned in meantone, like the
harpsichord played here. This is a very exquisite and uncommon instrument.
The Bavarian National Museum in Munich owns a harpsichord from an unknown
builder from South Germany, dating from the first half of the 17th century.
This instrument, the only surviving of its kind, is in unplayable condition,
but a reconstruction was commissioned by the museum, and made by Bernhard
von Tucher. What makes this single-manual instrument unique is that
it has no fewer than 6 registers: Flöte, Prinzipal I, Prinzipal
II, Nasal, Zunge and Lautenzug. This underlines the close connection
between organ and harpsichord in those days. This instrument is also
tuned in meantone and its pitch is a=465 Hz.
Considering all this I would have loved to recommend
this recording wholeheartedly. But I have some reservations.
To begin with, some decisions taken here are disappointing
or questionable. Like I said before, most pieces can be played on both
the organ and other keyboard instruments. In this recording the most
traditional path has been followed: all sacred works, based on chorales,
are played at the organ, and all secular works are played on the harpsichord.
But at that time the organ wasn’t a strictly religious instrument. It
is perfectly possible to play the variations on secular songs on the
organ. And we know some of Georg Böhm’s chorale partitas, which
are mostly played on the organ nowadays, were originally composed for
the harpsichord. It would have been nice if this practice had been reflected
in this recording.
I am greatly pleased by the sound of the harpsichord.
Its registers make this instrument quite colourful. The obvious question,
though, is how common this kind of instrument was, and – more importantly
– if this was a typically Southern German phenomenon or if a Northern
German composer like Scheidt has known such instruments.
In all sets of chorale variations settings of the chorale
have been inserted. They are sung by a solo soprano. That is a reasonable
option from a practical point of view, but I would have liked a ‘community
choir’ singing the chorales, like in Praetorius' Christmas Mass, recorded
by Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort and Players on Archiv. I
also find it very strange that some stanzas are inserted at the wrong
place. In ‘Vater unser’, for instance, the fourth stanza is sung after
the fifth variation. But Scheidt obviously follows the stanzas of the
chorale very closely: the chorale has nine stanzas and there are nine
variations. Therefore the fourth stanza should have been sung after
the fourth variation. Even worse is the Cantio Sacra ‘Warum betrübstu
dich mein Hertz’, where the first stanza is sung after the second variation,
and the ninth variation is followed by the second stanza!
There are also questions regarding the registration
of the organ works. In the aforementioned Cantio Sacra ‘Warum betrübstu
dich’ the first variation, traditionally the ‘presentation’ of the chorale,
is played with the regal 8 foot only, where one would expect a more
fuller and stronger sound, with stops like the Principal and the Octave.
I have reservations regarding the interpretation as
well. The contribution of the soprano Christiane Landshamer is small,
fortunately. Her continuous vibrato is annoying and very unstylish.
If these chorale settings are to be sung by a single voice, then a treble
would be the best choice. Being from Bavaria, Raml only needed to go
to the Tölzer Knabenchor to find an appropriate voice.
Franz Raml studied with Ton Koopman and learnt a great
deal from him. But temperament is something one cannot learn, and Raml
seems to have little of that. His playing is not very bold and imaginative.
He tends to be a academic, somewhat one-dimensional and mechanical in
his articulation, and his tempi – in particular in the variations on
popular songs – are slow. In the booklet, Johannes Hoyer refers to the
‘pleasure’ which is characteristic of these variations, but in the performance
I hear too little ‘pleasure’. I am not saying this recording is bad
or even dull, but on the whole it is rather uneven. The first piece,
the Cantio Sacra ‘Wir gleuben all’ is too straightforward, but the next,
‘Vater unser’, is quite good. Whereas some secular variations are too
slow, the Cantio Sacra ‘Warum betrübstu dich’ is rather too fast.
Technically this is a first class production. The engineers
have done a good job, and the programme notes are very informative.
The disposition of the organ and the registration of all organ works
are given. Unfortunately only the texts of the stanzas which are sung
have been printed. But since there is a close connection between text
and music it would have been helpful if the text of all stanzas of the
chorales appearing in this recording had been printed.
To sum up: an important and interesting project which
has its merits, but doesn’t quite live up to the expectations.
Johan van Veen