CD Sietze de Vries at Katharinenkirche, Hamburg

The so-called ‘Reincken organ’ of the Katharinenkirche in Hamburg was one of the marvels of the organ world, until it was lost in July 1943. Happily it has been reborn, due to the remarkable work of Flentrop Orgelbouw [and the energies of those responsible for making the project come to fruition].

Well before J.S. Bach’s much talked about improvisation on the Katharinenkirche organ in 1720 this substantial instrument, in the hands of the famous J.A. Reincken, had gained significant fame.

Hamburg was a city of organs, of which the instrument at the great churches of Jacobi and Katharine were pre-eminent. With the reconstruction of the Reincken organ we celebrate the return of a treasure. Featuring four manuals and pedals, including no fewer than two 32′ ranks on the pedal and a plethora of reed colours, not to forget the arsenal of mixture ranks and consorts of flute and principals across all keyboards, the instrument has a specification to make the most ardent of organ enthusiasts drool.

Beyond the statistics, however, we rapidly find far more interesting discussion points. Flentrop have produced a masterwork, which provides the player with a seemingly infinite tonal palette – one which is most at home in the context of the art of improvisation.

And improvisation is at the heart of this remarkable recording. Here we find a union of instrument, composer, performer [and improviser] that represents a return to the fine tradition of 17th century North Germany. This was a tradition that Reincken himself had considered lost, until he heard J.S. Bach in 1720. Clearly, this tradition is still able to be nurtured, and celebrated.

Sietze de Vries is no stranger to instruments of stature. Based in Groningen, in North Holland, he is enveloped in an organ culture second to none. Through his teaching [particularly centred on the art of improvisation], and his concertizing and recording, de Vries is a central figure in the organ world of northern Europe.

The repertoire presented on this fabulous recording presents us with a set of windows into the history of the Katharinenkirche organ. With Jacob Praetorius’ chorale variations on Was kann uns kommen an für Not, we inhabit the world of the 16th century, commencing with a hugely impressive verse for double pedal. Reincken’ s extraordinary chorale fantasy on An Wasserflüssen Babylon, presents us with a full 20 minutes of colours, ever changing textures and perspectives – enabling the composer and the organ to be displayed to best advantage. De Vries’ registrations are impeccable in taste, in flair and in imagination. In no sense is Reincken’s work a presentation of the Affekt of the text of Ps 137 [by the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept]; rather, he uses the chorale as a vehicle for his creative genius, weaving endless varieties of musical figures together; this work is, to all intents and purposes, a written-out improvisation, and is treated thus by de Vries.

The name J.S. Bach is strongly associated with this organ rebirth project, so it is all the more fitting that two works of his feature. Von Gott will ich nicht lassen, genius in its apparent simplicity, followed by a wonderfully powerful rendition of the Fantasia on Komm heiliger Geist, display two contrasting faces of the master. Eschewing the fake flair that is associated with unsuitably fast tempi, de Vries presents us with an authoritative performance that is never austere, but always commanding.

Sietze de Vries’ extraordinary improvisation on Psalm 86 [6 verses, taking no fewer than 33 minutes] establishes this [me artist as a master in the discipline.

One is continually overwhelmed at the structural cohesion, coup led with the inventiveness, sitting alongside the inspirational colours drawn out of the instrument. In a very real way we experience a re-activation of the traditions and practices of the past – but in no way does this ever feel derivative; rather, we have a strong sense of a continuum, inspiring us to consider the instrument [with its origins in the 15th century], the reconstructed organ, the composer and performer, and us, the audience, as one united whoIe.

In this exceptional recording we encounter a musician who has absorbed all the elements of a ‘historic’ keyboard musician of the 17th century, and who brings these to life in the 21st century. When coupled with an instrument of the stature and quality of the Flentrop reconstruction at Hamburg’ s Katharinenkirche, we are presented with a treasure of the highest order.

The presentation of this CD is equally fine – stunning recorded sound captures the instrument in a really 3-dimentional way, in which the ambience of the building is embodied in the tonal spectrum. Comprehensive liner notes, inc1uding registration details and high quality photography, make this a truly ‘complete package’.

This recording deserves the highest accolades. It is impressive, moving, awe-inspiring, and utterly beautiful.

James Tibbles, Head of Early Music Studies School of Music, The University of Auckland