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Improvisations on Advent and Christmas Hymns

Macht hoch die Tur [2'04]
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland [1'57]
Ihr lieben Christen, freut euch nun [1'15]
O Heiland, reiss die Himmel auf [1'40]
Es kommt ein Schiff, geladen [2'06]
O komm, o komm, du Morgenstern [1'33]
Wie soll ich dich empfangen [3'17]
Die Nacht ist vorgedrungen [2'22]
Tochter Zion, freue dich [1'36]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her [2'25]
Es ist ein Ros entsprungen [2'41]
Kommt und lasst uns Christus ehren [1'27]
Brich an, du schones Morgenlicht [1'28]
Lobt Gott, ihr Christen alle gleich [1'17]
Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ [2'32]
Nun singet und seid froh [1'15]
Zu Bethlehem geboren [2'31]
Kommet, ihr Hirten [1'31]
Herbei, o ihr Glaub'gen [1'18]
Ihr Kinderlein, kommet [1'17]
Ich steh an deiner Krippen hier [2'56]
Frohlich soll mein Herze springen [1'57]
Hort, der Engel helle Lieder [2'12]
Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht [4'55]
O du frohliche [1'58]
Kay Johannsen (organ)
rec. Stiftskirche, Stuttgart, 9, 10, 12, 15 October 2005 DDD
CARUS 83.179 [51'30]

Last year I reviewed Kay Johannsen's Liszt CD for Carus on the new (2004) Muhleisen organ in Stuttgart. This is actually Johannsen's own church and he was responsible for the commissioning of the new organ. In this new release, unlike the Liszt disc, he provides an explanation (in German only) of the conceptual thinking behind this mammoth (81 stop) instrument. In essence there were three concepts; the creation of a middle-German baroque-inspired organ for the music of Bach, an organ for German Romantic music and an organ for improvisation. The stop list reveals also French influences, especially in the reeds of the Second Swell, and the Flute Harmonique among the Hauptwerk 'fonds'. The basic division of the organ is as follows: The Hauptwerk with a 16' chorus to mixtures at 2 2/3 and 2', plus extra 8 foundation including a Gamba and Gemshorn, a 4' Tibia (!) plus Cornett, 16' and 8' Trompetes and a Chamade. The Ruckpositiv contains a Principal chorus from 8 to Mixture at 1'1/3 plus middle German baroque inspired colour stops - a Bifara and Quintade at 8', a 16 Fagott scaled after the Hildebrandt example at Naumburg, and 8' Trompete and Krummhorn. The remaining 2 manuals are both enclosed. The Schwellpositiv is clearly the key element in the German Romantic concept; 5 8' flues including a Concertflote, Salicional and Unda Maris, and a free-reed Clarinette with its own windschweller. The division also contains wide scale mutations including a Septime, as well as a Trompete and Vox Humana. The 4th manual, 'Schwellwerk' contains 6 8' flues including a Celeste, Aeoline and Gamba as well the Frenchish reeds. The sizeable pedal re-uses stops from the previous instrument.

I remain thoroughly sceptical that this organ says anything new for modern organ building. I cannot believe that the church needs an organ of 81 stops; from the photos the room is clearly not vast. OK, its most famous predecessor, the Walcker of 1837 with 2 pedalboards (you've seen the photos - it was lost in the war), had 84, but I bet it was 40% softer! The present organ sounds to me, just as in the Liszt disc, like the Central European eclectic product I've heard so many times before and of which the UK has many examples. The sound is not unpleasant - certain flutes are extraordinary, the Glockenspiel with and without damper is, well, astonishing as are the tubular bells. The choruses on the other hand seem hard and one-dimensional, the strings have little depth, the reeds, with the exception maybe of the aforementioned Clarinette are all deadly neutral. The ultra-rock-steady wind contributes no life. On the one hand, I reserve any conclusive judgement, as should you, until I've visited and played it. The recordings scream Rieger and Klais with another badge. Oh, and no case ... really.

But you must buy this CD because Kay Johannsen's improvising is extremely enjoyable! What a huge imagination and craft to be able to create out of nothing such a variety of miniatures; Toccatas, Berceuses, Scherzos, neo-classical French Overtures to name just a few. His harmonic language ranges from late-romantic to contemporary tonal with a slightly commercial, even jazzy feel. Occasionally something completely different - the wonderfully acerbic but quicksilver scherzo on Vom Himmel Hoch for instance - changes the mood completely. Even the English-speaking listener will recognise more themes than you'd expect incidentally. This is really first-rate Catholic liturgical improvising; never a dull moment, sometimes highly virtuosic, undoubtedly accessible and above all colourfully imaginative.

The organ leaves me stone-cold but this would make a great soundtrack to next Christmas!

Chris Bragg



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