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Gerd ZACHER (b. 1929)
Organ Works
Text (1963) [17:05]
Szamty (1968) [12:56]
Vocalise (1961) [8:27]
Diferencias (1961) [15:57]
Realisation über Cage’s variations I (1958/1966) [5:47]
Ré (1969) [7:08]
Gerd Zacher (Karl-Schuke orgel (1968))
Evangelische Kirche, Essen-Rellinghausen, rec. 4-6 October 2004
CYBELE 060.501 [67:20]
Experience Classicsonline

Gerd Zacher has long been a familiar name as an organist, less so as a composer, possibly since his catalogue of works is not vastly prolific. His work performing John Cage extends into the techniques used in Realisation über Cage’s variations I, and those of us who know the 1968 DG recordings of Ligeti’s Volumina  and Etude No.1, ‘Harmonies’ will already know of some of the remarkable effects he can conjure. He has also written numerous books on music, and has also recorded Bach and Reger as well as other contemporary names such as Isang Yun and Mauricio Kagel.
The first of the pieces on this SACD hybrid is Text, subtitled Sieben Stationen eines Textes nach Jeremia 36. This title goes some way towards indicating the intensity and seriousness of this piece, which is serial and atonal in concept and subject to what sounds like the tightest intellectual rigour. Zacher’s approach was not so much a programmatic description of the events described in Jeremia, but rather the transformation of the texts as they are distorted by changes in perception: from another space or room, at other points of time, by other ears, or when they are subject to changes in emphasis or deformed to the point of destruction. The programme notes helpfully provide the descriptions in précis, and Zacher adds his own brief comments, directing the ear to significant events or techniques applied in the music. This is one of those pieces which demands concentrated listening and effort to appreciate in full, but rewards such application in full. Each of the movements is quite compact, and as an opening ‘number’ has plenty of intriguing contrast and variety of colour, and some startlingly powerful climactic moments.
Szmaty is also subtitled, this time with a reference to Psalm 22 verse 19, and has a dedication to Isang Yun. Zacher played Yun’s work Tuyaux sonores and this piece often during the time when Yun had been imprisoned in South Korea, as a way of bringing his plight to public attention. Szmaty is Polish for ‘rags’, the Psalm quote being, “They divided my clothes among themselves and threw dice for my robe.” The letter sounds of the title also lend themselves to the changing colours of the organ sound as the piece progresses. Humming ‘m’ sounds, for instance, are created using the swell shutters opening and closing, and the final ‘y’ or ‘i sound is created by using the uppermost pitches of the organ in an extended cluster, these pipes being more usually used as additional colour in combination with other stops. This is another fairly enigmatic piece, but has a sense of vitality in its almost Darwinian exploration of the materials chosen by the composer. There are some fascinating rhythmic passages which have an organic sense of irregularity and freedom, while at the same time being tightly regulated patterns ranging from duplets to duodecimoles.
Vocalise is a study for the swell pedal of the organ, with the shutters of the swell box opening and closing and creating strange distortions of aural perspective. The ear doesn’t expect an organ to ebb and flow like the seawater at the beach, and the effect can by quite a physical one if you allow it to affect you in that way. The textures and undulating to and fro are the most un-organ like effects on the programme so far, with a strange imbalance between almost secretive melodic contributions from the 8’ muted stop from the organ chest and the held chords.
The title Diferencias comes from the Spanish for variations. As with Zacher’s other pieces, this is an exploration, this time of twelve-tone serialism. Zacher provides some useful analysis, but to me the most important technical aspect of the work is the flexibility with which the composer uses his material. Zacher takes up the 12-tone technique almost as a defence of it as a neglected musical minority, quoting Erich Itor Kahn and referring to the Nazi’s rejection and exiling of serialism, so that “it remains today a secret pushed aside.”
Fans of Webern will no doubt agree on this point, and the ‘pure’ kind of atonal 12-tone serialism found in Diferencias is indeed something you rarely find in new composition today. I would say that it’s about as fashionable as flared trousers, but with the flux in the Szmaty trade these days such generalisations are even more dangerous than using serial technique.
In fact, if you are intrigued and inspired by Messiaen’s use of serialism, including the mapping out of ‘interval durations’ and the like, then you will probably respond quite positively to this piece. Think of the Livre d’orgue without the roaring religious subtext and you might have some idea of what to expect. Indeed, Messiaen congratulated Zacher on this work, writing to him on the subject in 1961. Even if you struggle with the atonality and remoteness of some of the movements, there is no doubting the strength of atmosphere created. In transforming common chromaticism into such a distinctive musical dissertation, Zacher becomes his own ‘force of nature’.
With Gerd Zacher’s realisation of John Cage’s Variations I we enter an entirely different sound world. Zacher is a pioneer of alternative organ techniques, and here he uses variable key pressure to turn the organ into ‘something rich and strange’. This is no vague improvisation, and Zacher demonstrates in the booklet text how the various pressures on the keys can be defined. This is something which can clearly be heard in the music, and must be devilishly hard to do well: “Every tiny finger movement, even in fractions of millimetres, created an audible expression.” Cage himself was enthusiastic about this interpretation of the piece, as the chance element of the performance as well as that of the score becomes absolute, though with Zacher’s efforts in exactitude with the technique this might also be seen as a contradiction. Either way, this is a fascinating sound, and one which will raise the hairs on your scalp.
Another fascinating noise is created in the final worth on the programme, . This title refers to French musical nomenclature for the note D, but aside from this tonal focus the overriding impression is one of strangeness in colour and sound from the organ and beyond. Paper and cardboard is placed into the wind pipes by assistant Ingo Vinck to vary the volume and spectrum of sound, and a variety of effects distort the gradual appearance of the harmonic overtone scale of D above, while the held pedal note itself is in a constant state of variation. This is a remarkable work, and contains the only ‘joke’ I could find on the disc, a wee three-note reference to Bach’s famous D minor Toccata and Fugue near the beginning. 

Cybele has proven itself an admirable promoter of good organ music, with off the beaten track listings such as the works of Tilo Medek and the ongoing Tournemire L’orgue mystique. Gerd Zacher’s music may provide a tougher nut to crack than either of the aforementioned, but is equally deserving of attention. With a superb SACD recording and superlative performance by the composer himself, this is one of those rare synergies which makes this disc an instant classic of 20th century organ music.
Dominy Clements


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