Letter from Holland: Organ Concert at the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam – Saskia Roures plays works of Byrd, Caroso, Bach, and Buxtehude

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Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Transept Organ, 1658/1964-5
Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Transept Organ, 1658/1964-5

Holland is known as an incubator of the movement to restore the use of historically authentic instruments in the performance of early music, particularly in its most recent phase of the past half-century. While this owes much to the personalities and examples of such notable figures as Gustav Leonhardt, Frans Brüggen, and the (Belgian) Kuijken brothers, there are two other compelling factors: a knowledgeable and receptive public, and the presence of a treasured collection of historically important baroque-period organs housed in magnificent acoustical settings.

Although the start of the New Year is a relatively quiet time in Dutch concert life, it seems that there is almost always a worthy organ concert to be found within an hour’s drive of wherever you happen to be (in my case, Delft). And to be sure, there is a web-site listing such programs throughout the country which enabled me to discover that the Spanish organist Saskia Roures was performing a short but intriguing afternoon concert in the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, the church where Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck was organist from 1577-1621. Ms Roures, who is professor of organ at the Conservatorio Superior de Musica in Aragon, has cultural ties to Holland. She was named after Rembrandt’s first wife whose tombstone lies on the church floor right next to the smaller and older of the two organs on which she played her program. (The historical Saskia is one of ten thousand souls entombed in this oldest church in Amsterdam.) Her program enabled one to experience her style of performance in a wide range of repertory, and to become familiar with two very different kinds of historical instruments.

The first half of the program consisted of works not necessarily intended to be played on the organ at all. Byrd’s “The Bells” was included in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (ca. 1600), while Caroso’s “Canario” appeared as a musical example to accompany the dance in the author’s 1581 dance treatise. Considerable creative thought went into the adaptation of these pieces for the relatively small transept organ on which they were played. This colorful seventeenth-century instrument* is tuned in the older ¼ comma mean-tone system, which supplies relatively pure harmonies that sound exotic to ears conditioned to modern tuning systems. Both pieces are built on short, repetitive bass patterns, in Byrd’s case, only two notes which mimick the tolling of two bells. The challenge to both composer and performer is to maintain interest by supplying variety of melody and color, both of which were abundant. Organists have basically two strategies: they can either start a program with a bang, literally pulling all the stops and letting you hear the whole instrument right away, or they can start small with only a few quiet stops and gradually build up to the bigger sound. The latter was Ms Roures’ choice, allowing us to savor the unique colors of the flutey stops before bringing in the colorful reeds, and then enlarging the sound-picture with mixtures and pedal-couplings.

Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Transept Organ, 1658/1964-5
Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Transept Organ, 1658/1964-5

The “Canario” is a folk-dance with a colorful history, probably migrating from the Canary Islands with African slaves who were brought with the conquistadores to Mexico. From there itinerant musicians brought it back to Spain where it achieved popularity as a dance form. Fabritio Caroso, the authoritative figure in 16th century Italian court and social dance, included this example in his treatise, providing a melody and a single iteration of its brief repeating bass which is characteristic. It uses the same three basic chords as contemporary rock and Latin music: think “La Bomba.” This rather bare outline provided the organist with a framework for lively creative interpretation. The result was delightful. The full significance of this choice, however, would not emerge until the very end of the program.

At this point, the performer moved from the transept to the west end of the building and the console of the 1726 Vater-Müller organ, a full-sized instrument designed by Christian Vater who had been an apprentice to the well-known baroque organ builder Arp Schnitger. Vater’s instrument has 45 ranks and a total of about 4000 pipes; despite various renovations over the years, all of its pipes are original, though not all are in good repair. (A new restoration is planned for the year 2012.) For the short program of German works, enough of the instrument worked quite splendidly, giving the impression of unlimited possibilities. The opening work of this segment continued the “folk” mood of the program with Bach’s “Pastorale” in F, a piece without any explicit religious connections. But the baroque pastoral tradition implies a link between this work and the Christmas season. It is actually a little suite in four movements, the first full of the drones of shepherd’s bagpipes performing a ‘siciliana,’ a genre familiar from Corelli’s “Christmas Concerto.” This was followed by three more movements: a folksy dance similar in style to a Bourree, a flowing cantilena (a strict texture of lyrical melody and subordinate accompaniment) with restless and surprising harmonies, and finally a ‘gigue’ in the form of a fugue, completing a trajectory from the rustic simplicity of the first movement to the full artistic sophistication of the last.

Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Great (Vater-Müller) Organ, 1728/1738/1869
Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, Great (Vater-Müller) Organ, 1728/1738/1869

For contrast, the second Bach work chosen was the very famous setting of the Advent chorale “Nun komm der Heiden Heiland.” The familiarity of this work sets an interesting challenge for the performer: it has been heard as a piano solo (arranged by Busoni), as a full orchestra piece (scored by Stokowski), as a brass piece, and of course it has been performed on every kind of organ imaginable. It was refreshing, therefore, to hear it played with an almost improvisatory spontaneity and a very straightforward registration. In this work, Bach took one of the simplest melodies in the chorale repertory, slowed it down, and added a beautiful, compositionally thought-out ornamentation. The performance of such a line, which balances architecture and expression, can easily err on the side of excessive reverence, treating each note as a brick in the edifice of a ‘masterpiece.’ The results can be ponderous and ultimately tedious. Not so in this performance; Ms Roures applied an expressive flexibility of tempo which allow us to hear the ‘little notes’ as garlands surrounding the important points, distinguishing between the outlining chorale and the expression of individual response to it. The organ contributed an eloquent cornet stop to the melodic line, which stood out well from the three quietly blended accompanying voices. All the voices of this organ have a timbral richness and distinctiveness that never seem generic; their sounds vividly suggest a tangible physical object at the source.

Matteo Imbruno plays Sweelinck’s Ballo del Granduca at the Vater-Muller organ of the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam

So far the program had been chronologically arranged, but that pattern was disrupted by the choice to conclude with one of the magnificent Preludes of Buxtehude. These works are not quite multi-movement, but rather, multi-sectional works which are designated today with multiple titles, in this case “Prelude, Fugue, and Ciaconna.” It is important to remember that the composer considered this to be a single work with one section connected to the next by fantasia-style passage-work; in fact, such works had their origins in improvisations which were only later written down and polished up a bit. Bach must have known it; it begins with a wonderful pedal solo (showing off both the three impressive 16-foot stops of the organ and the player’s fancy foot-work) that Bach emulated in his own Toccata and Fugue in C major. With the entry of the other voices, we got to hear the richest combination of pipes of the afternoon, with the trumpets of two keyboards combined with the pedals. This was followed by the concise fugue which brought back the flutes (from the Bach Pastorale) to provide a more intimate experience prior to the return of the brass and mixtures in the final brief but lively Ciaconna. Ms Roures eschewed the slow tempos and evocations of majesty that many find in the chaconne form; it was after all used as the climax for operas and ballets heard in the court of Louis XIV. But in the north of Germany (Buxtehude worked in Lübeck) the Italian form of this dance (as explicitly indicated by the title) may well have pointed to its more humble folk origins (Spanish, again), and in fact, the repeated bass progression chosen by the composer exactly matched that of the “Canario” heard earlier. In this way, the two halves of the program were stitched neatly and unobtrusively together; the realization of the unity found between the Italian 16th century dancing master and the German 17th century Lutheran organist, as well as that of the two instruments housed in the same building, brought extra warmth to an afternoon that was spent, after all, in the vaste and (almost) unheated spaces of this bare and ancient church. It was the music, the skill of the organ builders, the dedication of curators through the centuries, and the insight of Saskia Roures that generated light and warmth in the darkening winter afternoon.

*This organ was built in 1658 by the famous organ maker Hans Wolff Schonat. In building it, he used some of the pipes taken from another organ at this location that had been built by Hendrik Niehoff. The shutters for the new organ were painted by Cornelis Brizé. The instrument was used for concerts commissioned by the city’s administration. During the 18th century, it was used less and less frequently so that when an organ had to be built for the Zuiderkerk in 1821, the pipes from the small organ in the Old Church were used. The case, however, remained behind. In 1964 and 1965, a new organ was built for the old organ case by organ makers Ahrend & Brunzema from the East Friesian town of Loga near Leer. Its disposition was taken from the famous collection of dispositions of Joachim Hess, an organist from Gouda, and dates from 1774. It has become a beautiful instrument with great artistic eloquence and was even enlarged after being retuned in 2001 to a 17th-century middle-tone tuning. []

Matteo Imbruno plays Scheidemann’s “Alleluja” at the Transept organ of the Oude Kerk of Amsterdam

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