2005 marked the 100th anniversary
of the death of organ builder Friedrich Ladegast. It also marked
the 150th anniversary of the dedication of his first large organ,
the 81 stop, 4 manual instrument of Merseburg Cathedral. This
is a crucial organ both in the development of Ladegast, who
would later go on to build famous instruments for the Nikolaikirche
in Leipzig (just reconstructed) and his magnum opus, the organ
for Schwerin Dom (which survives), but also for German organ
building in general. Ladegast was a traditionalist, as Schweitzer
noted, "I consider Ladegast to be the most important organ
builder in Germany after Silbermann,
whose tradition he continued." As an example of his 'old-fashioned'
tendencies, it is remarkable for instance that Ladegast continued
building organs with silder chests long after most of his contemporaries
were occupied with the development of the cone-chest. "It’s
not that I am against cone-chests" he wrote, "but
we don't build them. Reeds do not sound well on them and staccato
playing is impossible".
On the other hand Ladegast
played a vitally important role in the development of a new
organ type, so much so in fact that Merseburg can be considered
the first large Romantic organ in central Germany, as well as
being the largest organ in Germany at the time. Ladegast,
like Cavaillé-Coll in France, was of course reacting
to the new musical aesthetic of the time, subtle dynamic contrast
had replaced the stricter, more static ideal previously predominant.
The leading Ladegast expert Alexander Koschel notes that apart
from the rich Principal sound and clear mixtures, (with very
few high ranks), the sound ideal is typified by his approach
to variety in the flutes; stops such as the Bordun 16, Lieblich
Gedackt 8, Hohlflote 8, Doppelgedeckt 8, Quintaton 8, Flauto
amabile 8, Flauto traverso 8 Zartflote 4, and Gemshorn 4 can
all be found at Merseburg, and also in the strings. Examples
of the latter family in Merseburg include Gambe 8, Salicional
8, Salicional 4, Fugara 4, Violon 16, Cello 8, and the beating
Unda Maris 8. The supple flexibility of the 'new' organ type
was noted by a colleague of mine, who, while visiting the organ
last year noted that while playing Liszt was indeed a revelation,
playing the more classical music of Schumann was a disappointment.
The emphasis with this organ turns to frequently changing sound
colour, rather than individual stops of great eloquence.
This juxtaposition of traditional
elements and, more especially the birth of the new expressive,
'modern' organ type inspired Franz Liszt to compose his most
significant organ works. The Prelude and Fugue on BACH was written
for the Merseburg organ, Liszt'z protégé, Winterberger performed
Ad Nos there, two years after it was composed, and later Reubke,
another Liszt student played the first performance of his famous
94th Psalm Sonata there.
It is fitting therefore
that MDG have decided to record these Liszt discs on the newly
restored Merseburg organ. Liszt's expansive, dramatic music
and the unique variety (above all in the 8' registers) of the
Ladegast organ provide a compellingly fascinating combination.
One must re-consider what dynamic flexibility in that time really
meant, before the world of multiple swell-boxes, electronic
combinations etc distracted us, and coloured our view of Liszt's
music, among others, in the process. Michael Schönheit, the
Cathedral organist in Merseburg provides darkly-hued performances
of the Evocation à la Chapelle sixtine and the Tu es Petrus
from the Oratorium 'Christus', though whether the version found
in the oratorio came first, or the organ version is apparently
unclear. I have to set a question-mark against his 'Ad Nos'
which is for me, just too expansive and, at over 36 minutes
comfortably the slowest I'm aware of on record. While it affords
us plenty of time to revel in the wonderful soft resources of
Ladegast's masterpiece in the slow central section, the piece
as a whole doesn't hold together well, and loses a lot of the
drama along the way. Its a shame that this recording, given
the setting, is too idiosyncratic to be recommended as a first
choice performance of the work. Try, again, Nicholas Kynaston
in Ingolstadt on Guild, or
the new Louis Robilliard recording on Festivo from Toulouse.
Astonishing music on an
astonishing instrument. Buy this, to appreciate one of the pillars
of 19th century organ development.