About this Recording
8.572246 - Organ Recital: Unger, Michael - BUXTEHUDE, D. / BACH, J.S. / LITAIZE, G. / WIDOR, C.-M. / MESSIAEN, O.

Michael Unger: Organ Recital on the Marcussen & Søn Organ of the Musashino Civic Cultural Hall, Tokyo
Dietrich Buxtehude (c.1637–1707): Praeludium in E minor, BuxWV 142
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BWV 662 • Praeludium et Fuga in A minor, BWV 543
Gaston Litaize (1909–1991): Prélude (from Douze pièces pour grand orgue) Prélude et danse fuguée
Charles-Marie Widor (1844–1937): II. Choral (from Symphonie pour orgue No. 7), Op. 42
Olivier Messiaen (1908–1992): IX. Dieu parmi nous (from La Nativité du Seigneur)


The varied compositions selected for this recital recording on the 1984 organ of the Musashino Shimin Bunka Kaikan follow a kind of spiritual progression from death to life, beginning with a dramatic baroque depiction of death’s dance, and concluding with an exuberant twentieth-century affirmation of religious incarnation.

Dietrich Buxtehude, the famous “Organist in Lübeck”, was appointed to the city’s Marienkirche in 1668, and remained in Lübeck until his death in 1707. While the exact circumstances of his birth remain unknown, it is likely he was born around 1637 in Helsingborg, a port-city under Danish rule at the time, and he probably received his earliest education from his father, Johannes, and from the Latin School at Elsinore. His monumental Praeludia stand among the most significant surviving organ works from the late seventeenth century, and come from a thriving improvised tradition in seventeenth-century Germany and Italy. Formally, Buxtehude’s Praeludia alternate between sections based on harmony (so-called “free” composition, not bound by imitative polyphony) and sections based on counterpoint (fugues). His Praeludium in E minor, BuxWV 142, masterfully includes three fugues of different characters. Kerala Snyder suggests that the aggressive rhythmic drive of the third fugue may represent a kind of Totentanz—a dance of death, popularly represented in medieval and renaissance art as skeletons leading the living down to the grave. The second fugue is unusually lengthy and is based on a sorrowfully chromatic descending melodic line, a common operatic motive of lament. With the tonality of E minor, described as among the most serious of keys according to seventeenth-century theorists, the overall sentiment is one of severity; even the first fugue’s optimistic perpetual motion eventually dissolves into a chromatic conclusion, setting the stage for the unfolding drama.

Johann Sebastian Bach was among a number of musicians influenced by Buxtehude. Amid the collections of chorale-based compositions that Bach composed and assembled throughout his life is one commonly referred to as the Leipzig Chorales or the Great Eighteen (Seventeen). These chorale settings probably originated during his time as organist and concert-master to the Weimar court (1708–1717), but survive in his own handwriting from a manuscript later in his life (probably the early or mid-1740s) while he was working in Leipzig. As such, they represent the work of an older master revising and reflecting on his own musical legacy. Many have speculated on the overall nature of the collection based on this fact, arguing that Bach’s end-of-life reflection resulted in a musical expression of a more universal eschatology. The two chorales for this recording represent two contrasting expressions of faith, yet with similar compositional procedures and affects. The text for the hymn An Wasserflüssen Babylon, BWV 653, comes from a German translation of Psalm 137, a lamentation of the Israelites alienated from their homeland in Babylon. Remarkably, Bach depicts this as a sarabande, a graceful triple-metre dance often described in the eighteenth century as having a noble character. Perhaps, as some suggest, the comforting nature of Bach’s writing itself is an attempt to soothe the mournful longing of the Psalmist, while yet others have argued that Bach’s use of triple metre is a kind of expression of the Holy Trinity, or faith in the salvation found in life-beyond-death. In terms of hymn text, the Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, BVW 662, offers a contrasting statement—a German strophic version of the liturgical Gloria in excelsis Deo. This setting appears as the first of three in Bach’s manuscript, and is marked with the term “adagio”, which again may seem superficially questionable given the joyful affect of the text. Yet Bach’s sweet aria is rich with musical and theological depth, depicting a rare calm and lyric expression of glory in A major, a key described by one later eighteenth-century theorist as one used to express “youthful cheerfulness and trust in God”. The opening figure which appears throughout the chorale setting may represent a kind of spiritual ‘condescension’, or a depiction of Heaven coming down to Earth. Compositionally, in both cases, the chorale appears as an expressive and richly ornamented solo aria, accompanied by voices themselves inspired by chorale motives.

Bach’s Praeludium et Fuga in A minor, BWV 543, also dates from his Weimar period. The prelude begins by showing an influence of Buxtehude and the north German organ tradition; an extended solo manual passage begins the work, eventually only accompanied by a single held pedal note, and ultimately followed by a pedal solo based on the same motivic material. This north German-inspired introduction then gives way to writing that is more Italianate, showing influences of popular and lively Italian string concerti in both compositional procedure and character. The perpetual motion and energetic character of the long fugue is also drawn from Italian and German models.

Like the Bach selections, the two compositions of Gaston Litaize represented on this recording show different characters and portraits of an artist at different stages in his life and career. Litaize was born in Ménilsur-Belvitte in the Vosges region of northwestern France; blind from birth, he began his studies at the Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles, before studying composition and organ at the Paris Conservatoire, the latter with Marcel Dupré. The Prélude is the first piece from his first published collection, the Douze pièces pour grand orgue, composed in the 1930s, demonstrating Dupré’s influence. The Prélude is a hauntingly simple work, written in the sombre tonality of B flat minor. Two themes are presented in alternating sections; the first features perpetually flowing contrapuntal lines, while the second is lushly harmonic, registered using the sonorities of the organ’s string and celeste stops. The character is aptly summarised by Norbert Dufourq, who described Litaize’s overall style in 1939 as inclining “to restlessness and gloom”.

The darkness gives way to the exuberant and colourful Prélude et danse fuguée, published in 1964. By this time Litaize had established himself as the organist of the Paris St François-Xavier church, in addition to his active international concert and recording career and his directorship of religious radio programming. He shared with his colleagues an interest in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music; inspiration from baroque forms and idioms can certainly be traced in his Prélude et danse fuguée, yet infused with his own creative sense of rhythm, harmony and registration. The subject of the rhythmic danse fuguée forms a kind of intervallic “wedge” based on increasing and decreasing intervals; through syncopation and jarring harmony, the piece grows to a thrilling conclusion.

This is contrasted by the serenity of Charles-Marie Widor’s Choral from his Symphonie No. 7, Op. 42, published in Paris in 1887. Like Buxtehude at the Marienkirche, Widor’s exceptionally long tenure as organist of Paris’ St Sulpice began in 1870, and continued until his death in 1937. He was a renowned performer, teacher and composer. The tonal resources of the late nineteenth-century organ sought to imitate the varieties of colours and dynamics of the late nineteenth-century orchestra, and in turn, organists and composers crafted works that were largely secular in style and symphonic in scope. Widor’s choral is not based on any pre-existing hymn, but begins with a chorale-inspired harmonic opening that becomes the basis for musical development and fantasy, not unlike the famous three chorales César Franck composed near the end of his life. Similar to Litaize, the choral presents two contrasting ideas in repeated alternation—the calm hymn is contrasted by the agitation and restlessness of the second section.

The recording concludes with one of Olivier Messiaen’s landmark works written before 1939: La Nativité du Seigneur, or nine meditations on the birth of Christ. As the ninth and final movement, Dieu parmi nous represents a theological and compositional summation of the entire work. Messiaen’s complex narrative begins as a conversation between various musical and religious symbols—God coming to Earth represented by dramatic descending figures; the excited chatter of birds and the singing of angels; energetic rhythmic figures drawn from Hindu models, ultimately leading the piece to a great celebratory toccata. Merging various biblical texts, Messiaen inscribed the movement with the following epigraph: “Words of the communicant, the Virgin and of the whole church: He who created me has rested in my house, the Word was made flesh and it has dwelt in me. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.”

Michael Unger

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