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Baroque Organ Music from Northern Germany
Matthias WECKMANN (1616-1674)

Praeambulum Primi Toni a 5
"Ach wir armen Sünder" (three verses)
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Praeludium in E (BuxWV 141)
Ciacona in e (BuxWV 160)
"Nun bitten wir den heiligen Geist" (BuxWV 209)
Heinrich SCHEIDEMANN (1595-1663)
Galliarda ex D
Paduana Lachrymae (after Dowland’s Lachrymae)
Johann Adam REINCKEN (1643-1722)
Choralfantasie "An Wasserflüssen Babylon"
Mario Hospach-Martini, organ
Christian Müller Organ at the Grote Kerk in Leeuwarden (1724/27)
Recorded January 2002 DDD


Baroque organ music is one of my musical passions, so I was very pleased to receive this new Arte Nova recording. Organ music isn’t strong in the minds of most classical music enthusiasts and the organ music before Bach gets even less attention. It has the reputation of being severe and dark, and I can’t deny that a typical organ work of the period would prove the reputation somewhat accurate.

Anyone with a warm spot for Early Baroque organ music naturally takes to its severity, the serious chromaticism, and the highly introspective presentation. However, at least in my situation, there is another crucial element that, combined with the others, makes this music so compelling. That element is a sweet optimism that is spiritually uplifting and provides heightened contrast with the generally dark moods. Bach was well aware of this feature and always ensured that he used it in his bleakest and/or most stern organ compositions.

Each of the programmed composers on the Arte Nova disc offers excellent music, and I feel that Weckmann, Buxtehude and Scheidemann are among the greatest composers of Early Baroque organ music. Weckmann and Scheidemann were pioneers of the "Stylus Phantasticus" movement when composers were starting to take off their structural chains and create new forms as well as expand on existing ones. Buxtehude’s music represented the peak of the "Stylus Phantasticus" period and is the more famous for the distinction.

With the new disc, we get the opportunity to listen to organist Mario Hospach-Martini who was born in 1971. He already has an active concert regimen and has studied with well-known artists including Robert Hill, Wolfgang Rübsam, and Harald Vogel. His organ of choice is one built by Christian Müller in 1727. The Bakker and Timminga organ building company of Leeuwarden had the honor of restoring the organ in 1972. Its sound is attractive though not as rich as I would like.

I initially enjoyed the Hospach-Martini performances, but continued listening has left me with a dampened opinion. ‘Sweetness’ is something he tends to avoid, so the strong musical contrasts are diminished. He doesn’t highlight architectural cohesion and progress, especially in works containing highly divergent sections such as Buxtehude’s Praeludium. I wouldn’t say that he prefers to travel off the main road, but that he doesn’t sound confident as to which road to take. Also, Hospach-Martini uses some weak registrations for Fugal sections that I find contrary to the musical arguments. All the above could be forgiven, but the lack of drive and elasticity just won’t do.

Hospach-Martini begins his program with two of Weckmann’s finest organ works. The "Praeambulum Primi Toni a 5" has a powerful and majestic Prelude followed by an irresistibly mysterious Fugal section. "Ach wir armen Sünder" is a perfect example of the severe-sweet blend I mentioned earlier in the review. The music is contemplative, uplifting, and gorgeously decorated.

For the Weckmann comparisons, I used the excellent Naxos recordings of Wolfgang Zerer and the 2-cd Motette set performed by Hans Davidsson. The most noticeable difference when placing Hospach-Martini into the mix is that he minimizes the music’s sweet appeal. It’s not that he’s more severe than Zerer or Davidsson, but the superb contrasts they offer are not matched. I think it would be fair to say that Hospach-Martini gives Weckmann a slightly dour personality that is not advantageous.

The situation worsens with Buxtehude’s glorious Praeludium in E. This highly diverse work has a free-form introduction, three Fugues, and a Recitative. Each section is masterful, and the work has a rock-solid coherency built on purpose and drive. Frankly, Hospach-Martini doesn’t give a ‘prime-time’ performance. His drive is deficient in the Fugues, as he seems to chop his way from side-to-side and not allow for any sense of inevitability. Each section sounds detached from the others and the registrations are often too discreet. Hospach-Martini diminishes Buxtehude, and that becomes crystal clear when listening to Rene Saorgin’s performance on his Harmonia Mundi box set of Buxtehude’s complete organ works. Saorgin offers structure, lift, and the drive that makes the piece so compelling. Hospach-Martini is in the ‘Minor Leagues’ with the Praeludium.

Buxtehude’s "Ciacona" and the Choral Prelude "Nun bitten" find our young organist giving his most effective performances on the program. Both pieces, slow and carrying serious emotional subjects, suit Hospach-Martini very well. He conveys a strong degree of subtle yet intense sadness in the "Ciacona", and his stately presentation of "Nun bitten" is quite attractive. These aren’t the best versions I’ve ever heard, but they compare well to Saorgin’s. As an aside, there is a striking similarity between the Buxtehude "Ciacona" and Bach’s Passacaglia BWV 582 as to structure, flow, and melodic content. Bach admired Buxtehude greatly, and it definitely shows in his Passacaglia.

Hospach-Martini plays the remaining three programmed works in a dutiful and unimaginative manner. A comparison of his performance of Scheidemann’s "Galliarda ex D" with Gustav Leonhardt’s on a Sony Vivarte disc illuminates one of the major problems with Hospach-Martini’s interpretations. The man displays a minimal level of elasticity, while Leonhardt opens up Scheidemann’s music to reveal all its glories.

In conclusion, the low Arte Nova price tag is not sufficient to give the Hospach-Martini new recording a recommendation. He takes the ‘great’ out of great organ works of the Early Baroque era. In doing so, he gives credibility to those who find this type of music unyielding.

What to do? If you want Weckmann, the two Naxos discs and the Motette set I mentioned earlier in the review are excellent selections. For Buxtehude, the Saorgin box set is a fine bargain with generally exceptional performances. Scheidemann has been well served in recent years with three discs on Naxos and two sets on the Calcante label.

There are also huge numbers of mixed recordings such as the Leonhardt that offer a much higher level of artistry than the Arte Nova can manage. Another disc I highly recommend contains the masterful organ music of Nicolaus Bruhns performed by William Porter for Loft Recordings. If you would like to go further back in time to the 1500s, there’s a 2-CD set on Motette of the organ music of the magnificent Antonio de Cabezón.

The recordings I recommend above constitute just a fraction of the excellent organ recordings on the market stretching in time from the early 1500s to the High Baroque period exemplified through Bach’s music. Hospach-Martini is simply buried by the competition and not recommended to dedicated record collectors or the curious.

Don Satz

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