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Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her – Christmas Organ Music
Michael Hartmann (organ)
Recorded 2012, Muhleisen Organ of St Bonifaz, Munich
OEHMS OC865 [71:35]

The booklet notes for this release begin by asking the not unreasonable question of what exactly makes certain organ music "music for Christmas." It answers its own question in a convincing enough way, demonstrating that most of the tracks on this CD are based on a festive cantus firmus, and the notes give enough helpful context. Importantly, however, this disc would survive well enough on its own, even if it didn't have a festive theme.

The 1977 instrument of St Boniface in Munich is captured very nicely indeed, and full credit should go to the Oehms engineers for doing such a good job of encompassing the organ's range but capturing it in intimate proximity when it needs to. The Bach numbers are a very good way in and, after a four-square interpretation of BWV547 — linked thematically to Bach's Epiphany cantata Sie werden aus Saba alle kommen — the chorale prelude on Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland sounds delicate and wistful. The ensuing Pastorale is delightfully reedy, and Brahms' take on Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen is much fuller but also pleasingly restrained.

Nowowiejski's piece, evoking a Christmas service in the great basilica of St Mary’s in Krakow, shows off the organ brilliantly, simulating the pealing of bells, the shimmering of the altar and culminating in a hymn tune as though sung by the congregation.

I really enjoyed Flor Peeters' chorale preludes. Wachet Auf is pleasingly busy, though the hymn tune shines out clearly, and Vom Himmel Hoch sings out its tune in an understated bass line while the hands dance around it magically. The same is true on a grander scale for Lucis Creator Optime.

Malling's Der Geburt Christi re-imagines the Pastorale successfully for the late 19th century and uses, among other effects, an oboe stop to reinforce its shepherding credentials. I especially liked the cadences towards the end of the first movement and the studied solemnity of the procession of the Kings.

The Guilmant sequence is mostly gentle and understated, though it features a jolly set of variations on Infant Holy, Infant Lowly. Fleury's variations on a Burgundian NoŽl rollick along with jollity. Barber's Chorale Prelude on Silent Night brings the disc to a calm, thoughtful conclusion.

Why not give it a go for a less normal take on the Christmas CD?

Simon Thompson

Track listing
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 –1750)
Pršludium und Fuge C-Dur, BWV 547 [8:23]
Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599 [1:14]
Allein Gott in der HŲh sei Ehr, BWV 677 [1:03]
Pastorale, BWV 590 [10:14]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Es ist ein Ros’ entsprungen op. 122/8 [2:04]
Felix NOWOWIEJSKI (1877–1946)
Weihnacht in der uralten Kirche zu Krakau. Fantasie op. 31 Nr. 3 [7:11]
Flor PEETERS (1903–1986)
Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, op. 68/5. Moderato [4:21]
Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her, op. 70/3. Andantino [1:58]
Lucis Creator optime, op. 75/10. Allegro [1:32]
Otto MALLING (1848–1915)
Die Geburt Christi, op. 48 [10:39]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837–1911)
CantilŤne Pastorale op. 15. Andante quasi Allegretto [5:30]
Introduction et Variations sur un ancien NoŽl Polonais, op. 60/2 [2:57]
NoŽl Brabacon op. 60/3 [3:23]
Andrť FLEURY (1903–1995)
Variations sur un NoŽl Bourguignon [6:07]
Samuel BARBER (1910–1981)
Choral Prelude on Silent Night op. 37 [3:45]