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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Tu es Petrus. Andante maestoso aus dem Oratorium Christus [6'24]
Ave Maria von Arcadelt [4'32]
Ave verum (Mozart)“ [2'57]
Evocation a la chapelle sixtine [20'39]
Fantasie und Fuge uber den Choral 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' [36'32]
Michael Schönheit (organ)
rec. Merseburg Dom, 27-28 October 2004. DDD


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.

Chris Bragg


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