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CD: Cybele

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Goldberg-Variationen: Aria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen BWV 988 (1742) [74:44]
Martin Schmeding (organ)
rec. 31 March - 3 April 2009, Kathedrale Dresden (Hofkirche)
CYBELE 030.802 [74:44]
Experience Classicsonline

Writing this review at the beginning of June 2009, I must first admit to admiration at the speed with which this recording has been prepared and released. No aspect of the production has been skimped however, and the booklet is rich in photos, facsimile fragments of the original score, a cross-section illustration and history of the 1755 Gottfried-Silbermann organ, and lengthy essays including an analysis of the Goldberg Variations by Gerd Zacher, and young organist Martin Schmeding’s explanation of his performing decisions and the adaptation of this piece for organ. I am already a big fan of Martin Schmeding’s playing from the magnificent Cybele recording of Tilo Medek’s organ works, so we’re off to a good start.

All fans of Bach will surely be familiar with this piece on piano or harpsichord, and the original composer’s indication of music Vors Clavicimbal mit 2 Manualen could hardly be clearer. The argument for an arrangement for organ as opposed to piano is that this is ‘a natural evolution from the original version for harpsichord. The intended effects and contrasts, often abrupt ... are rendered in a particularly plastic manner on the organ, through the multiplicity of stops at one’s disposal.’ In other words, two manuals and more on the organ is closer to Bach’s original than the one manual and relatively monochrome quality of a modern piano. There have been recordings of this work on organ before, but the claim made for this recording is that it is the first to be made properly on an organ from Bach’s time.

Indeed, the Silbermann organ of this recording was consecrated in 1755 and was much admired by Mozart when he played it in 1789. The pipes of the organ were saved from damage during the Second World War by being stored at the Marienstern Monastery in 1944, not long before the bombing of Dresden. The sound of this instrument, Silbermann’s last and grandest, is therefore pretty much unchanged since it was originally built. It looks and sounds magnificent.

The first question I hear everyone ask is, ‘the Goldberg Variations on organ, that can’t work surely? Won’t that be like reading Shakespeare’s sonnets through a megaphone?’ Well yes, you may find there is a certain amount of mental adjustment to be made, but I for one was pleasantly surprised at the results from this recording. You have to be prepared for the character of the music to be altered, and the sonorities we normally associate with this secular masterpiece do become imbued with a certain churchliness on the organ. Bach’s elegantly simple Aria normally chimes with a gentle aura of tenderness and reflection on piano or harpsichord, the attack and decay of the notes and the character of the instrument on which they are played having an important role to play in the nature of the performer’s interpretation. Martin Schmeding’s approach on the organ is not to attempt any kind of reproduction of this character, but does show his sensitivity to the music in the sublime, exquisitely haunting opening of this recording. He revels in the organ’s character and the beautiful church acoustic, sustaining the spread chords - as they are written - under the floating melody like a muted string orchestra. Any angst you might have had about the sound of the organ v. Goldberg should be dissipated immediately, unless you are absolutely allergic to organ, in which case why are you playing this disc in the first place.

The first variation also goes some way towards addressing a second potential problem - that of rhythm. The Goldberg Variations is full of great beauty, but also has a good deal of punch and bouncy fun in many of the variations, and the worry with organ is that this will be lost in a wallowy soup. Schmeding goes for jabs from the succulent squelch of the 16’ bassoon stop as a bass of this first variation, and plenty of the dancing character is maintained in this way. The nature of the organ is such that the player can layer textures and variety of sound to a greater extent even that a two manual harpsichord, so that the definition of the counterpoint is always very clear. This however also means that we are at the mercy of the organist’s selection of stops. Martin Schmeding’s work on this music has been thorough and careful, and he notes the arrangement for each variation in the booklet. These are often technical remarks and probably won’t mean much to non-organists, but if a particular variation makes you wonder what exotic box of tricks made the sounds then your inquisitive nature can be swiftly assuaged. As the work progresses we are given a remarkable variety of solutions to the problems of sonority and colour, with each problem of transcribing for rhythm, melodic clarity and articulation on the organ being effectively addressed.  

I’ve listened to and even enjoyed the Goldberg Variations in a variety of styles and on numerous media, even including extreme examples such as the squeeze-box. With any such alternative, you have to ditch your preconceptions and appreciate or abhor the intrinsic values in the conception, performance and ultimate results for what they are. For me, it is far better to have a good performance of such a masterpiece on an organ that a dreadful one on harpsichord, or piano for that matter. Do I have any criticisms of this recording? Yes, a few, but these are not necessarily negative comments, more observations which may or may not concern potential purchasers of this disc.

It is the nature of a good organ recording that the position of the organ pipes is accurately conveyed in the stereo image, and this recording is so marvellous that you sometimes have the feeling you are almost inside the instrument. This is especially true in surround mode, such that you can have melodic figures bouncing around the room like a squash ball. I’m not particularly bothered by this, but being used to hearing these tunes come from more or less one place it is something to bear in mind. The sheer variety of different colour in the organ stops means that you may find the familiar sense of comforting continuity in this piece is also something which is compromised to a certain extent, though the all-round excellence of the organ and its own unique character provides its own sense of unity. The changes in registration are all achieved soundlessly, and while this is a genuine historic instrument there is nothing rough and ‘dangerous’ about the sound. This is no heap of ancient pipes held together with string and scaffolding, and the aesthetic beauty of the instrument’s physical presence is reflected in rich sonority and the kind of colour in the sound which you can listen to for the whole 75 minutes without fatigue. True, organ is more ‘in your face’ than the more familiar harpsichord in this music, and you don’t have the feeling you can take a back seat and relax in such a remarkably detailed and richly colourful acoustic picture, but Schmeding takes care that the fuller registrations are contrasted here and there with more rounded and reflective sounds. A side effect of all this wonderful contrast is however a change in that sense of ongoing narrative which I always end up seeking in recordings of the Goldberg Variations. This is one of those hard to quantify elements in a performance which is personal to every listener, but for me is the sense that everything is connected in a way which somehow transcends the mere fact of a thematic relationship with the Aria theme. I’m not going to say that Martin Schmeding doesn’t have this feeling in his performance, but would say that a side effect of all this change of sonority between variations means that one may have to seek it in ways other than with more familiar keyboards.

Whether Martin Schmeding has gone too far or not in serving up such a rich feast of organ variety in these variations is a matter of taste. If he had opted for anything less I’m sure there would be those howling cries of ‘monotony’ in his general direction, but this recording does cruise close to becoming a demo disc for the Gottfried Silbermann organ brand if one chooses to hear it as such. Aside from that beautiful opening, the crucial part of this piece for me - and where this recording wins - is the final sequence of variations from around variation 21, the Canone alla Settima, and the building of the final structure towards the final Aria. Schmeding takes this 21st variation down low and introduces tremulous stops to add character. The fugal 22nd variation propels us into ‘coda-feel’ mode with the refreshing sonorities of a low reed Trombone stop and the upper swell and great. The lighter character of variation 23 is allowed plenty of space, and leads nicely into 24 which is given a ‘string’ effect in the manual. The gorgeous Trio which follows is taken in a superb ‘less is more’ reading, with three-part simplicity built into an 8’ principal solo stop for the melody, 8’ reed flute to accompany and 16’ pedal as support. Variation 26 is again taken as playful light relief, pairing itself with the dancing 27th variation which spares us low sonorities through increasingly high 4’ flutes and 2’ principals. Continuity is again preserved between 27 and 28 with fluty ‘trills’ also using something called the ‘Siffleten’ stop. Now at variation 29 we really are on our way home, with the amplifying effect of aligning two different full-organ mixture stops. Variation 30, the famous Quodlibet then has the full glory of just about everything being coupled to everything else. After this climax it only seems sensible to reinforce the final return of the Aria with the melody using an 8’ Unda maris stop as well as the familiar 16’ bass. This maintains the essential atmosphere of the opening, but takes the ‘used’ condition our now thoroughly exercised ears and brains into consideration. 

Giving such a blow-by-blow of the differences between variations is not much of a way to give a real impression of this recording, but does give some indication of the way in which Schmeding tackles the issues of each movement and the sense of contrast and indeed the relationship between each. To be fair, there is a sort of cycle of variations throughout which use the same arrangement of stops with additional minor tweaks here and there, so to argue that there is too much chopping and changing would also falsely represent the fine achievement of this recording. For organ buffs and SACD aficionados I would say this has to be one of the discs of the year. The recording not only captures the scale of the acoustic and the magnificent range of the Silbermann instrument, but also somehow manages to portray the depth and scale of the instrument itself. Looking at the cross-section of the organ makes clear the distance between certain ranks of pipes ranged behind the main facade, and these proportions come across entirely naturally but with striking accuracy.

Martin Schmeding plays with great style and expressive flexibility while keeping well within the bounds of Baroque performance idiom, and by throwing in a few nice extra ornaments and runs without imposing virtuosic artifice onto the music. My own view is that fans of Bach and the Goldberg-Variationen should also make haste to add this disc to their collection. Purists who believe otherwise can keep to their views, but will be missing out on a treat. This disc provides a valid new viewpoint on some of the best Baroque keyboard music ever written, slotting it neatly among the pages of the rest of the organ Clavier-Übung and managing to inhabit both the worlds of authentic period music making and an entirely new ‘re-invention’ of BWV 988.

Dominy Clements


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