Monday, 18 July 2011

Robert Noehren playing works by Johann Sebastian Bach

Robert Noehren (1910-2002) was an influential American organist with a broad interest in organ building, performance practice and writing.

He was named “International Performer of the Year 1978” by The American Guild of Organists, and in that connection I’ve found this short biography (

“Robert Noehren (December 16, 1910 – August 4, 2002) enjoyed a long and distinguished career as international recitalist, recording artist, scholar, author, and teacher. He was for many years University Organist and Head of the Organ Department at the University of Michigan. His discography numbers over 40 recordings, from earlier vinyl LPs to a number of CDs made late in his career. Among his many honors were the French Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the Bach Trio Sonatas. His interest in historical organ building led to numerous trips to France, Germany, and Holland, and the establishment of his own organ building company, where he designed and built some 20 large pipe organs, including a four-manual organ for the Cathedral of St. John in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Active up until the day of his death, Noehren practiced every day, had plans to make another commercial recording on the large organ he built for First Presbyterian Church, Buffalo, New York, was writing a cook book, and was preparing a lecture for the convention of the American Institute of Organbuilders. He was also a serious composer, having studied with Paul Hindemith.”

This recording was made in Kenmore Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1951 on an organ build by Schlicker in collaboration with Robert Noehren. I’ve inserted the back cover of the LP below.

In many respects his organ playing resembles that of Helmut Walcha. It’s clear, intelligent, fluent and a bit restrained. The performances are logical and performed with great control and with a delicate sense for lines and polyphony. The slow movements are beautifully shaped with a very vocal phrasing and the fast movements are never rushed.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Feike Asma & Hans Vollenweider playing works by J. S. Bach and F.Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

I’m now able to present two new organists to IHORC, the Dutch organist Feike Asma (1912-1984) and the Swiss organist Hans Vollenweider (1918-1993).

"Forever closely associated with the organ of the Great Church of Maassluis (near Rotterdam) is the name of Feike Asma. In 1927, Asma succeeded his father as organist of the Reformed Church of Den Helder. He played the organ of the Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden from 1933 to 1943, afterward moving to the historical organ of the Lutherian Church in The Hague. Asma served as organist here for a period of 22 years, gracing the services and giving many recitals. In 1965, Asma became organist at Maassluis until his death in 1984, again playing for services and in numerous recitals. In the notes to the last recording issued during his life, Mr Jan Quintus Zwart characterised Osma in these words:

"Over half a century, organ virtuoso Feike Asma has achieved his own place among Dutch organists. While giving so many recitals, he was assured of a large audiences of enthusiastic listeners for his recitals throughout Holland, on large and small organs. But he also played in France, the United States, Canada and South Africa, again attracting large audiences to his recitals."

Asma was a pupil of the legendary organist and historian Jan Zwart. He was a very remarkable person, also due to his very virtuous style of playing. He had many admirers, but he was also received harshly by some critics. Asma, bound to the organ with a deep love for the symphonic orchestra, was the organist who always gave much attention to the large-scale works of the Romantic organ literature. Reger, Liszt, Widor and Franck figured frequently in his programmes, and he also often included some of his own choral music and those of Zwart. As Asma himself once put it: "I'm a man who has the God-given ability of making music, and so I'm glad that I am able to play [for others]." Indeed, this was the foundation of his passion for music and organ playing.

His approach to the organ is very romantic. The phrasings are bold and long and his choice of registrations always broad with a lot of foundation stops. Since he lived well into both the LP and even the digital age, many of his performances are documented live as well as in “studio”. I’m unsure of the exact time of recording, but they were according to some sources mechanically copied in 1941, which mean that these copies were stamped in 1941 from the master but might in fact be much older. They sound quality is surprisingly poor compared to contemporary recordings.

“The Swiss organist, Hans Vollenweider, was brought up in an artistic atmosphere, his father being a well known painter and publisher. He commenced his organ studies when he was 15 with Victor Schlatter and Ernst Isler. In 1936 he took his first organ post at the local church, whilst studying at the Music Academy, Zürich. Three years later he graduated from the Academy with great success and after some recital work studied with Karl Matthaei, a pupil of the great organ virtuoso Karl Straube. In 1943, at the age of 25, Hans Vollenweider took an appointment as church organist in Zürich and soon began to travel extensively both as a virtuoso and as a teacher. He was ranked among the leading organists in Europe. His travels have frequently brought him to this country and in 1961 he went to Michigan University, USA, to hold master-classes. He broadcast and recorded extensively; and divided his time more or less equally between the harpsichord and the organ, and composing - mainly choral and chamber works.. He also held a teaching post in Organ and Harpsichord at the Zürich Music Academy.”

The two recordings presented here could be live recordings. The label says “Holland Festival Recording 1950”, there is an unusual amount of background noise, eg. someone coughing and like the Feike Asma recordings, the sound quality is below the standard of other recordings from the same period. Similar to Feike Asma his style is romantic and the “O Mensch bewein” is beautifully shaped.

Many thanks to Claus Byrith for making these transfers.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 3

This is the third and penultimate release with Olivier Messiaen playing his own works for now. The last works missing is his “Messe de la Pentecôte” and his “Livre d’Orgue”. Oliver Messiaen also recorded the “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité”, but since it was composed in 1969 it was from obvious reasons not included in the 1956 recording sessions. He recorded the “Méditations” in 1972, but we’ll have to wait until 2022 for a public domain release of that.

I’ve already covered many sides of the circumstances connected with these recordings, so I’ll again let Timothy Tikker speak. This time it's concerning the interpretations by Olivier Messiaen, and also draw attention to his excellent article from The American Organist (Nov 2008):

“Identifying Messiaen as a romantic performer may seem surprising, when so many think of him as the ultra-modernist who, for example, did so much to introduce total serialism in composition. And yet, he admitted plainly: "I'm not ashamed of being a romantic. The romantics were magnificent craftsmen . . . The romantics were aware of the beauties of nature, of the grandeur of divinity; they were grandiose, and many of our contemporaries would gain from being 'romanticized.'

This, of course, leads to the questions of tempo rubato, and of meter and rhythm. Rhythm was of absolute, primal importance to Messiaen. Some have thought that Messiaen's complex rhythms are simply indications of rubato - a conclusion that, however, Messiaen emphatically denied. [..]

This does not, however, in any way mean that Messiaen did not use rubato in performance. On the contrary, we hear rubato extensively in his recordings. Many lyric phrases begin with the first note or two somewhat held back, then with a ritenuto at the end of the phrase. The highest note of a phrase may be prolonged: "Les Bergers," p. 9, the right-hand A in m. 16 and high D in m. 19; "Les Anges," p. 1, the right-hand B's in the first system. We hear cadential ritardandos that are not indicated in the scores, e.g., the middle of "Les Eaux de la Grâce" (p. 5, m. 4), or the close of the opening monody of "l'Ange aux Parfums." One conspicuous rhythmic alteration is the quickening of groups of 32nd notes, e.g., the pick-up figures in "Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux," as well as several figures in "Les Anges." This is a very typical romantic performance practice: the "enhancement" of shorter note values by quickening them.35 We hear an especially striking use of rubato in the toccata section of the fifth Trinité Mèditation, in which the pedal melody's sixteenth/eighth downward fifth (p. 42, m. 6; p. 43, m. 6) is emphasized, particularly by stretching the 16th. Surprising though it may seem to use rubato in such a relentlessly motoric texture, the effect is wonderfully powerful and dramatic, making other performances seem stiff and lifeless by comparison. “

I completely agree with Timothy Tikker. It’s very clear that Olivier Messiaen was grounded in the romantic performance style and perhaps his music should be approached in that way. Many post or contemporary organists of Messiaen tend to play his music only “as written” which makes their performances seem “stiff and lifeless by comparison” again quoting Timothy Tikker.
We have the same situation with the piano music of Bela Bartok and Sergei Prokofiev - they were also schooled in the romantic tradition and also played their music in that manner (cf. their many recorded performances of their own works), but since they suggested a new and much more percussive approach to the piano, many pianist afterwards tend to have all their focus on that element forgetting that the music was shaped with the romantic idiom in mind.
Again many thanks to Anders Riber for the transfers.

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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 2

The second part of the complete Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen consists of Apparition de l’Èglise éternelle and Les Corps Glorieux.

I discussed the technical and historical details in the first release, so I’ll not go into these details again.

As mentioned in the first release, I’m very reluctant in naming the definitive renditions of any works, but Messiaens own interpretation of the Apparition is simply amazing. His tempo is extremely slow but never dragging and his overall musical perception of the piece is so incredible grand.

In fact looking over just a few other recordings of this piece puts Messiaens version as the slowest:

Olivier Messiaen (1956) 10:05, Latry (rec. 2000) 9:45, Rudolf Innig (1996) 9:16, Jennifer Bate (1982) 10:00, Susan Landale (1986) 7:36, Thomas Trotter (1993) 9:48, Louis Thiry (1972) 8:01.

The overall timing of a piece doesn’t directly tell anything about the actual tempo (or tempi) in a piece. There are many other factors in play, just listen to the very big pauses Messiaen has between some of the sections, but the overall timing can tell us a little of the performers overall grasp of the whole piece.

The Corps Glorieux are done with a strong personality and commanding interpretation, but still very spontaneous and with great elegance and plasticity. Especially I can recommend the “Les Eaux”, in which he almost make the organ dance in the middle section, and the fiendishly difficult last part is done in a very virtuoso style.

Thanks again to Anders Riber for providing the transfers of these important documents. No digital noise reduction has been applied, so there is a little background hiss and click here and there.