This is the seventh volume in the Naxos series devoted to the organ works of Heinrich Scheidemann. He is considered the father of the North-German organ school and played a key role in music life in Hamburg. He was the son of David Scheidemann who was first organist in Wöhrden in Holstein and moved to Hamburg in 1604 where he had been appointed organist of St. Katharinen. It is not known exactly when Heinrich succeeded his father, but he was acting as organist from 1629 at the latest. He held this position until his death. From 1611 to 1614 he studied with Sweelinck in Amsterdam, like so many of his colleagues. His teacher's influence is clearly discernible in his organ works, for instance in the use of echo effects. Sweelinck brought him also into contact with the music of the English virginalists. Their influence comes especially to the fore in his variations, which are mostly for manuals, and are probably written for the harpsichord in the first place. Julia Brown has included some of them in the programme of this disc, as with previous volumes in this series.
The present disc delivers a survey of the various genres in Scheidemann's keyboard oeuvre. It begins with a setting of the Magnificat which comprises four verses in various textures. This is an alternatim composition; the other verses are to be sung. It is a little disappointing that these have been omitted; their inclusion would have given a good impression of the liturgical function of this setting. Obviously the Lutheran chorales played an important part in the liturgy, and this explains the large number of arrangements of various kinds in the German organ literature of the 17th and 18th centuries. Scheidemann was a particularly fruitful composer of such arrangements. He treats the chorale melody in different ways, sometimes as it was written and sung by the congregation, sometimes highly embellished. Many arrangements comprise two verses, and the chorale melody can appear in various voices, mostly the upper voice or the bass, but sometimes also in the tenor. The number of voices deployed is either three or four. Although the art of playing the pedals was highly developed in North-Germany, Scheidemann also composed variations for manuals alone.
Organists in those days were expected to improvise. Organ music was very seldom printed, and the fact that a relatively large number of compositions from Scheidemann's pen has been preserved is due to its dissemination by his colleagues and pupils. It bears witness to the fact that he was held in high esteem. The chorale arrangements give insight into the way organists in those days prepared the singing of the congregation. They also played free organ works, for instance at the beginning and the end of services. The praeambula and fantasias give us some idea of their improvisatory skills. These are mostly pieces in free style, often influenced by the stylus phantasticus which had its roots in Italy. Some pieces look backwards, so to speak, to the era of the stile antico: at the time polyphonic motets as they were common in the 16th century were regularly sung, and sometimes also played instead. This explains the transcriptions of motets by, for instance, Hassler (Dixit Maria ad angelum). Scheidemann doesn't add that much to the original texture, but treats the motet in such a way that it turns into a real organ piece. It allows the performer to display the colours of the organ.
Julia Brown also plays a number of secular pieces. There is no basic objection to playing such pieces on the organ. Sweelinck played during weekdays the organ of the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, and it is certainly conceivable that he also included variations on secular melodies. However, it is not easy to imagine such a situation in Hamburg. I wonder on which occasions Scheidemann and his colleagues might have played such pieces in church. It is more plausible that they were written for domestic performance or in social gatherings of the upper echelons of society. In that case a performance on the harpsichord or comparable instruments would be preferable. For some reason this part of Scheidemann's oeuvre is largely neglected. Those who would like to hear some of them on the harpsichord should turn to a disc by Pieter Dirksen (Harpsichord Music; Et'cetera, 2007). The variations show, in particular, the influence of the English virginalists.
The instrument Julia Brown plays here is a modern organ, built by John Brombaugh & Associates (Eugene, Oregon) and completed in 2004. It is a nice instrument which is well suited to the repertoire. However, the tuning is not ideal. According to the booklet it "is tuned in Herbert Kellner's 'Bach', a mild unequal temperament suited to music from all periods". The latter is true from a technical point of view: no organ music may be unplayable, although I wonder whether it is suitable for romantic or contemporary music. In regard to interpretation a meantone temperament would be preferable when playing works by Scheidemann and his contemporaries. Now and then I noticed passages where the harmonic progressions were a shade ineffectual. In a meantone temperament they would have been more spicy and would have made a stronger impression.
This issue didn't prevent me from enjoying this disc. Scheidemann's organ oeuvre is versatile and compelling, and Ms Brown delivers fine performances, even though I would have liked a little more imagination, with stronger touches of improvisation. I don't know how many more discs we can expect. It would be great if at the end of this project all of Scheidemann's keyboard works were made available on disc. He thoroughly deserves it.
Johan van Veen