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Puer nobis nascitur: Christmas Carols
Louis-Claude Daquin (1694-1772)

Douze Noëls (c.1740) Noël Suisse (Noël XII) [3:37]
Quand Jésus naquit à Noël (Noël X) [5:56]
Adam fut un pauvre homme (Noël VI) [6:09]
John Bull (1563-1628)

Carol Een kindeken is ons geboren (I) [2:02]
Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck (1562-1621)

Ons is gheboren een kindekijn (Puer nobis nascitur) [3:27]
Jean-François Dandrieu (1682-1738)

Noël de Saintogne [2:51]
Noël Poitevin [2:21]
Si c’est pour ôter la vie [2:57]
Adam fut un pauvre homme [3:39]
Domenico Zipoli (1680-1726)

Pastorale [3:24]
Pablo Bruna (1611-1679)

Tiento sobra la letania de la Virgen [6:49]
Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707)

Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern [6:17]
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland [2:09]
In dulci jubilo [2:02]
Nicolas Lebègue (1631-1702)

Une Vierge Pucelle [1:52]
A la venue de Noël (dialogue) [1:31]
Noël pour l’amour de Marie [3:29]
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Pastorale (BWV 590) [9:47]
In dulci jubilo (BWV 729) [2:08]
Ton Koopman (Organ by Van Peteghem, 1778)
rec. 30 April-1 May 2006, St. Martinuskerk, Haringe, Belgium. DDD.
Booklet with notes in English, German and French

With the approach of Christmas, multiple recordings of Christmas Carols from King’s et al have started to appear in the shops and no doubt this CD will find its place there. The cover isn’t particularly festive, depicting a cherub blowing his horn – from the casework of the organ featured here – but the magic words Christmas Carols are there in the sub-title.

I’m afraid, however, that many impulse purchasers of this CD will be misled by this subtitle and disappointed when they find that there is not one single Carol as the word is generally understood in English, apart perhaps from the Buxtehude and Bach preludes on In dulci jubilo. The one piece labelled ‘Carol’, by John Bull, is actually an arrangement of a Netherlandish Christmas hymn.

Anyone who has followed my advice to buy the Hyperion Helios reissue of Daquin, performed by Christopher Herrick (CDH55319) will recognise the first three tracks on this CD as three of the Nouveau Livre de Noëls pour l’orgue et le clavecin, Op. 2, performed in full on that disc. Koopman’s performances, however, are very different from those offered by Herrick: whereas Herrick performs them in a straightforward manner – though by no means without expression – Koopman cannot resist the distortions which are regretfully typical of his organ playing.

Koopman polishes off the opening Noël Suisse in 3:37. Marie-Claire Alain on a deleted Erato CD of Noëls pour orgue takes 4:28 and Christopher Herrick takes 4:10. Neither could be accused of dawdling but Koopman is in serious danger of getting a speeding ticket. I hardly recognised this as the same piece that Herrick and Alain were performing. Herrick is particularly effective because he starts at a slower tempo and with a lighter touch and gradually builds up the speed and registration, though in neither respect does he approach the Technicolor excess of Koopman.

In the other Daquin pieces Koopman’s No.X at 5:56 is significantly slower than Herrick at 5:22 and Alain at 5:40; his No.VI at 6:09 is also slower than Herrick (5:40) and Alain (4:33). But it isn’t tempo that is the problem so much as Koopman’s tendency to play around with the music – fussy ornamentation and registration and extreme contrasts of tempo and volume from second to second – to make it more ‘exciting’. I imagine that many listeners will find it all very lively and ear-catching but I much prefer the Herrick performances of all twelve Daquin Noëls. The organ of St Rémy, Dieppe (1736-9, rebuilt 1992) is much better suited to Daquin than the Haringe instrument which Koopman plays. Remember, too, that the Herrick comes at less than half the price of this Koopman CD – which makes it faintly ridiculous that bidders on EBay seem prepared to offer £11 for a second-hand copy of the original Hyperion issue: don’t they know it’s been reissued at half that price?

Why a musician of Koopman’s stature, one whose direction of Baroque choral music is so excellent, has to resort to this type of exaggeration I cannot understand. Reviewing this CD two days after hearing the Radio 3 broadcast of the concert of Cantatas by Buxtehude and Bach which he gave in Lübeck in May, a wonderful concert, I wonder if I am really listening to the work of the same person. Can this also be the same Ton Koopman whose recording of the Handel Organ Concertos, apart from the hideous cover, is the best thing since sliced bread? (Warner Apex 2564 62760-2, 2 CDs at super-bargain price, around £7.50 in the UK.)

The Bull and Sweelinck pieces are settings of Flemish translations of Puer nobis nascitur, the hymn which provides the title of the CD. John Bull, having got into trouble in his native England, was Cathedral organist at Antwerp; his contemporary Sweelinck was the most famous Netherlandish composer of organ music of his day. Those who find themselves attracted to his one short piece here may wish to explore his music further on Naxos 8.550904. Chris Bragg found the performances by Siegbert Rampe on a Dabringhaus und Grimm CD of Sweelinck (MDG341 1256-2) too fast and funky – unsurprisingly, he is a former Koopman student – so the Naxos is the recording to go for.

Actually, Koopman plays the Sweelinck and the Bull sensitively and the organ is particularly well suited to these pieces. Built in 1778, it is strictly Rococo rather than Baroque, post-dating all the music on this CD, especially the Bull and Sweelinck, but it sounds well in the German and Netherlandish music.

The Zipoli Pastorale receives a bright rather than a pastoral performance: the registration chosen is not inappropriate because in Italy such pieces were associated with shepherds playing bagpipes. The notes describe the piece as "the very impersonation of charm and affability", then prepare us for the fact that Koopman destroys some of those qualities: "Koopman adds ornaments freely."

Pablo Bruna’s Tiento on the Litany of the Virgin Mary is not strictly a Christmas piece, though the tune is not unlike that of the carol Sweet was the song the Virgin sang. It is something of a virtuoso piece and it receives a virtuoso performance. The booklet does not really explain what is meant by a tiento. The term is analogous to the Italian toccata and originally referred to a style in which the player was, as it were, trying out the instrument in the manner of a fantasia. In this piece by the little-known Bruna it virtually amounts to a set of variations, especially as performed by Koopman.

In Dandrieu’s Noël de Saintogne Koopman (2:51) is a little slower than Alain (2:30) but the problems which I noted in the Daquin resurface here – in a slightly less extreme form, but the contrast with the sensitive performances of the Bull and Sweelinck is noticeable. The other three Dandrieu pieces go much better. Maybe that is because I didn’t have versions by Alain to compare – the ‘Building a Library’ comparison method often exaggerates differences which one would not otherwise have noticed.

Chris Bragg complained of Koopman’s dissident, macho eccentricity in his review of Volumes I and II of the complete organ works of Buxtehude (CC72242 and CC72243). Specifically, CB complained of fast tempi and violently over-active touch, leading to a lack of Affekt in the music. As it happens, the three Buxtehude pieces on Puer nobis nascitur are included on the two discs which he was reviewing. The versions here are mostly even faster. Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern is here polished off in 6:17 as against 6:52; though I must admit that the actual statement of the chorale theme is beautifully played, much of the rest is rushed and lacking in Affekt. Nun komm der Heiden Heiland is performed in 2:09 against 2:00 – a fraction slower here this time – and In dulci jubilo in 2:02 against 2:08. These two pieces to some extent restored my faith in Koopman’s musicality – fast, but with a delicacy of touch and real feeling for the music.

The transition from the music of Buxtehude to that of Lebègue is somewhat abrupt: surely it would have been better to have kept the French Noëls together and to have led from Buxtehude to Bach, a more natural transition. Moreover, as Lebègue is generally regarded as the ‘father’ of French organ music, it would have been logical to have placed him first.

The abrupt nature of the transition is sharpened by the fact that, for Lebègue, Koopman reverts to the style in which he performed the Daquin. In Noël pour l’amour de Marie his 3:29 is very close to Alain’s 3:20 but the stylistic differences and the fact that the Albi organ (1736, rebuilt 1981) is much more suited to this music make Alain much more recommendable.

The last two pieces, by Bach, receive sympathetic performances without any attempt to make them artificially exciting. The Pastorale is a reflective piece in the manner of the Pastoral Symphony in Handel’s Messiah, designed to be performed at the Christmas Midnight Eucharist. It is taken a little fast for my liking in places but there is real feeling in the playing. The notes in the booklet prepare us for a breakneck performance of the final piece, Bach’s prelude on In dulci jubilo. As this is the final piece on the disc it is not inappropriate to treat it in a manner suitable for a recessional and, as such, I did not find Koopman’s grand manner of playing it inappropriate. One almost expects to hear the Radio 3 announcer’s voice at the end of Choral Evensong or the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s on Christmas Eve. Not a bad note on which to end what is, for me, a very mixed blessing of a recording.

The notes are, as usual with this label, informative and full – so full that the booklet was very difficult to fit back in the case and one corner tore easily. Those who know little of Iberian organ music would probably have welcomed a fuller explanation of a tiento in the notes on the Bruna piece.

The specification of the organ is given in the booklet but the registration employed for individual pieces is not specified. The names of the manuals in Flemish may be rather unfamiliar to English and French organists. The Hoofdwerk is the German Hauptwerk or Grand Orgue, the Rugpositief the Positif, Echo speaks for itself, the Aanhangen pedaal the pull-down pedal-board, Toetsen the pedal notes and Schuifkoppel is conveniently translated as ‘coupler’. A photograph of some of the stops reveals that some of these have Flemish names such as Holpyp, a reed stop, but these are all given their more familiar, mostly French, equivalents in the specification.

In the Buxtehude and Bach the registration does not draw attention to itself but in the French pieces I did not always find it appropriate. Baroque French organ composers often specify registration which draws attention to the reed stops but Koopman’s registration sometimes makes the instrument sound wheezy rather than reedy.

The action of the organ is unavoidably noisy in quiet passages, yet there is little sense of building ambience. Otherwise the recording is excellent – less reverberant than the Erato/Alain. I can imagine, feeling gemütlich on Christmas Day, laying all critical faculties aside and enjoying this Koopman CD. Were Warner Classics to reissue the Marie-Claire Alain CD on Apex, however, that would be worthy of a much stronger recommendation.

If you are looking to escape from the usual fare of Good King Wenceslas, etc, this Christmas buy the Helios reissue of Daquin. If you want a Christmas CD that really knocks your socks off, go for one of Paul McCreesh’s liturgical reconstructions – A Venetian Christmas on DG 471 333-2 (music by Giovanni Gabrieli and others), Christmas Vespers 1664 by Schütz (463 046-2) or, even better, Lutheran Mass for Christmas Morning (1620), featuring the music of Prætorius and his contemporaries (439 250-2).

Brian Wilson


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