The Organ

Bratislava Castle Organ Recitals

The 28th annual series of recitals was held between the 12th and 26th of August 2004. This is an expanded version of the account that appeared in issue 330 of The Organ.

The organ of Bratislava Castle's music hall was built in 1975 by Rieger-Kloss of Krnow in the Czech Republic as their opus 3436; it is a neo-baroque instrument with nine speaking stops on Manual I, nine on Manual II (Swell) and six on the Pedal; key action is mechanical (slider soundboards) and stop action electric.

Felix Friedrich, from the former East Germany, has an international reputation as a recitalist and was therefore a safe pair of hands, so to say, in which to entrust the opening recital. His unassuming public manner and lack of histrionics at the keyboard belie his impressive technical ability and musicality. He performed his whole programme without the help of an assistant. Two fugues on the name of BACH were offered: the one by Johann Christian Bach (1735-1782) was markedly less interesting than the one by Johann Peter Kellner (1705-1772) and both were played organo pleno with Pedal reed. Bach himself was represented by two fugues in G (BWV 576 and 577) interspersed by the well-known air from the D major Orchestral Suite (BWV 1068) and the G major Fantasia (BW 572), the final work of the evening. This latter piece Friedrich took at a furious pace but the individual notes could still be heard clearly; the middle section was played with over-zealous rubato instead of a stately and rhythmically relentless procession to the final demi-semi-quaver section which he played fast without a registration change. Other works performed were Friedrich Ruppe's (1713-1781) C major Organ Concerto (manuals only), a light-weight work reminiscent of Haydn's Pieces for Musical Clocks; three preambles by Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) and two modem works by Maximilian Kreuz (b.1953) and Kurt A Hueber (b.1928). The Kreuz work, identified as WV (Werke Verzeichnis presumably) 59, is four variations and Coda on church theme which was announced on the 8ft Principal; the variations were marked by syncopated rhythms, dissonant chords, registrations including tremulant and a full organ Coda. I would like to hear this work again. Hueber's piece, Lacrimosa Domine Jesu Hostias Sanctus, was taken from his organ Requiem Op. 21a; the subject was represented by dark, dissonant passages played in the bass, there were frequent changes of registration from tutti to soft and back again, and Friedrich demonstrated his ability to double pedal.

The young Slovak organist, Bernadetta Sunavska, showed herself to be an excellent performer in all areas of organ playing. Her programme ranged in time from Georg Muffat (Toccata sexta from Apparatus Musico Organisticus) to Reger (C sharp minor Rhapsody Op. 65/1), the latter played with great panache. She began with Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G minor (BWV 542) which she registered in the classical manner; the fugue was taken at a sensible speed. Why she needed the services of an assistant for this piece was not clear. The latter however retired for the next three works Bach chorale preludes on Wer nur den lieben Gott lasst walten, Meine Seele erhebt den Heffere, Kommst du nun, Jesu vom Himmel (BNW 647, 648, 650 respectively). All are to be played on two manuals and pedal in two instances the theme is given out on the Pedal at four foot pitch. She took the opportunity here of exploring various registrational possibilities all of which were appropriate. Miss S?un?avska also offered four sketches by Robert Schumann (1810-1856); these robust and contrasting pieces were entertaining for the listener, gilded as they were by frequent stop changes. The final solo work was Mozart's well-known Fantasia in F minor (KV 608). Here we had to wait some time for the composition pistons to be set up. While the fugal sections were played at an acceptable speed, the introductory section and its repeats were performed too quickly to hear all the notes clearly. However, despite a couple of fluffed pedal notes, it was another convincing example of her technical prowess. The two remaining works of the evening she shared with American trombonist, Ken Shifrin. Shifrin's musical interests are wide from jazz to searching out works of lesser composers. Thus we heard a two movement concerto by Georg Christoph Wagenseil (1713-1777) and a sonata by James Paisible (1690-1721) both played on the alto trombone with organ accompaniment. The trombone resonated well in the Castle Music Room and the balance between organ and instrumentalist was generally good. However, intonation in the fast passages was less than perfect, whether because the trombone or the performer were not up to the challenge was not clear. What is clear is that Bemadetta Sunavska is a technically excellent performer and a consummate artist; she should be better known outside Eastern Europe.

The third recital was given by Piotr Rojek from Poland who also accompanied Ken Shifrin in two works for alto trombone and organ. The first was Alma Ingrate (c. 1670) by Joseph I (Czar of the Holy Roman Empire). The second was written by an unidentified monk of St Thomas's church (which one?); the work had been unearthed in a Brno (Czech Republic) museum and, according to the programme notes, is the oldest existing composition for solo trombone. However, no date was given to substantiate this claim. Again intonation problems lessened the impact of these pleasant works. Rojek started his recital with Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E flat (BW 552) that is after a lengthy setting up of the pistons and looking for his music, all of which should have been prepared beforehand. Apart from the (St Anne) fugue, he played the whole work too quickly, indeed, almost losing control towards the end. The unfortunate result was an inaccurate and less than rhythmical performance. He fared much better in O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sunde gross (BWV 622) where we heard the solo part on a Comet (separ) plus tremulant. Strangely, the audience failed to applaud his good performance. Rojek next played three old (1678-1711) Polish pieces for organ two of which were by unknown composers. His use of the manual reeds put some life into these insubstantial works which sounded as though they dated from earlier than the turn of the 18th century. The two final organ works were Jehan Alain's Litanie and Boellman's Gothic Suite. Rojek seemed at home with French music and gave convincing performances; naturally, authentic French registration was lacking so he had to use the reeds available to him on this neo-baroque organ.

Marek Vrbel is yet another of Slovakia's highly talented professional young organists who demonstrated his ability to perform music of all periods. The first half of his programme included Toccata in D by JJ Froberger (1616-1667) and two Buxtehude works, Partita on Auf meinen lieben Gott (BuxNW 177) and Prelude, Fugue and Chaconne in C major (BuxWV137). On this instrument it is easy to find suitable registration for music of this period; Vrbel did so and gave satisfying performances but why he needed the services of the assistant in the latter work was mystifying. (It was unfortunate that note a1 on Manual I was out of tune). Three Bach chorale preludes came next: Herzlich tut mich verlangen, Vater unser im Himmelreich, and Liebster Jesu, wir sind hiee (BWV 727, 683 and 731). The first somewhat lacked the essential pathos it requires, the second was taken too quickly for the notes to breathe but the third was nicely played. These were followed by Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E minor (BWV 548) disappointment once again for it lacked the necessary rhythmic vitality and the Fugue, although begun at a sensible speed, got faster and became an inglorious scramble. During the interval the assistant was deputed to reset the pistons for the next work Mendelssohn's Sonata in D minor (op. 65 no. 6) which Vrbel played with great clarity and vitality. The French school was represented by APF Boely's (1785-1858) Offertoire pour le jour de paques, a flamboyant piece performed accordingly. The final work was Petr Eben's Sunday music (molto ostinato and finale). This is a monumental work of great complexity and, given the number of notes in the score both for manuals and pedal, I had to concede that an assistant was probably indispensable. His excellent pedaling technique and lightning movements between manuals were just two impressive aspects in a brilliant performance. Born 50 years ago in Rome, Giovanni Clavora Braulin is a professor of organ and organ composition at the Cherubini Conservatory in Florence. He began with Buxtehude's Ciacona in E minor (BuxNW 1) which was tidily presented; I wondered why he (or rather the assistant) made so many stop changes during this work but found, on consulting my Peters edition, that these are indicated in the score. Next came one of only two English works to be performed in this series of recitals, a Ground by Purcell played entirely on the manuals; we duly heard a Comet solo over a Flute accompaniment. The Bach work offered was the Prelude and Fugue in B minor (BWV 544) but interrupted by the chorale prelude Dies sind die heil' gen zehn Gebof (BWV 678). Perhaps there is a good academic reason for this practice but in performance the move from the chorale's final G major chord to the Fugue's B minor entry is unhappy. While the chorale prelude was fluently presented, the B minor itself was unsatisfying, lacking rhythmically and giving the notes no chance to be heard individually. After the interval we heard the three movement Sonata in D minor by Enrico Bossi (1861-1925). Braulin gave a vigorous reading of this work proving that he was well up to the technical challenges except of course effecting stop changes, that was the work of the assistant. Changes of manual were always smooth and the Larghetto movement flowed beautiftdly. Finally Eben's Sunday Music got another airing (Vrbel performed it at the previous concert). Registration was varied and imaginative and he managed to operate one of the combination pistons himself; all in all it was a vitally rhythmic performance and every bit as good as Vrbel's.

I was unable to attend the recital by Monica Melcov (Slovakia) because it clashed with the Historic Organ Festival and I chose instead to travel to the High Tatras to hear the 1665 nine stop organ (builder unknown) in Z?akovce and the two manual Cajkovsky organ of 1720 (Great 9, Positive 6, Pedal 2) in the wooden 'articulae' Lutheran church in Kezmarok. Miss Melcov played works by Lully, Cabanilles, Bach, Handel and Mozart and was the only recitalist to improvise on a theme presented by a member of the public.

A slip of a girl, casually dressed, appeared for the final concert but, for me, the performance of Mfia Demeterov (Slovakia) was the highlight of the series. From Buxtehude to Eben she demonstrated a masterful technique, her speeds always well chosen and controlled. Whether she is a complete organist is still an open question for she relied heavily on the assistant to effect most stop changes even in Buxtehude's D major Prelude (BuxWV139) which, written as it is in sections, is simple enough to register. Bach's Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659) was nicely phrased on a registration minus non-octave mutations and was followed by the C major Prelude and Fugue (BWV 53 1) in which she displayed her excellent pedalling technique. Next we heard John Stanley's Voluntary VIII Op.5 which was sensitively registered as though she were aware of the tonal limitations of the English organ in Stanley's time. The more meaty items then followed: Mendelssohn's Sonata no. 2 in C minor op. 65 received an outstandingly musical rendering in all its four movements. In the Adagio some lovely sounds were produced from 8ft stops played alone; crossed hands and subtle rubato were further aspects of Miss Demeterov's total control. The second half was given entirely to 2oth century music beginning with Jongen's (1873-1953) Prelude and Fugue Op.121. A fiery Prelude was followed by announcement of the fugal subject on the Manual II reed. She gave a vigorous reading of this work with its exciting dissonant chords, her pedalling always providing rhythmical support. Amongst his enormous output Flor Peeters (1903-1986) wrote a delightful Elegy (Op.38) for the organ which gives the performer an opportunity to demonstrate an emotional side to their interpretation; we duly recognized a draining agony in this work leading up to its final, rather surprising, chord. The audience failed to applaud this performance as though they can only recognise the end of works if they are loud and fast. Otmar Mcha (b.1922) is a composer I have not met before. His Wedding Toccata is a strong work beginning with fast moving passages on manuals only followed by syncopated chords over a Pedal part; a quiet interlude led to more syncopation and a final majestic C major chord. Miss Demeterov rounded off the evening with Eben's Naplneni zivota (Life's Fulfillment), part VIII of his Job cycle. Like much of Eben's writing, this is a formidable work but it held no dangers for this gifted young lady who played it with remarkable vitality and assurance. I could find no reference in the programme notes to Miss Demeterov's history as an international recitalist. It is high time she was better known outside Slovakia.