Pronkjuwelen in Stad en Ommeland

Sietze de Vries. Leeuwarden: Boeijenga Music Publications,2009. 106 PP., ill. + 1DVD, 5 CDs in slipcase. ISBN 9789070421654. $125. Available from the Organ Historical Society, Box 26811, Richmond, VA 23261; The treasures in the title of Pronkjuwelen in stad en ommeland (“Treasures in the city and surounding region”) are historic organs in the Netherlands; the city is Groningen. It is no secret that the city and province of Groningen are home to many historic organs some say the greatest concentration of historic instruments any place on earth. This set contains a book, live compact discs, and a DVD about the organs of Groningen.

Sietze de Vries modestly bills himself as the editor on the title page of the book, but he is actually the author of the text of this trilingual book, as well as the performer for all but one track on live CDs. After preliminaries, the first 45 pages describes the churches and organs of Groningen, from the pre-Reformation period to the present day, with emphasis on the Renaissance to the mid-19th century. Because the presentation is in three languages (Dutch, German, and English), this is not an exhaustive treatise on the history of organs and organbuilding in Groningen.

However, the book is in a large, square format, meaning there is room for color pictures throughout and more text than one would surmise based on the modest page count. The English version is fine, although the transla- tor blunders when he writes that the “Hamburg organist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) visited Haarlem at the age of 23, where he played the famous Müller organ in the St Bavokerk” (p. 58). Since the organ by Christian Müller dates from 1735-38, this would have been impossible. (The Dutch original simply speaks of the “famous organ of the Bavo kerk.” The instrument before Müller’s was also famous.)
The 19 organs featured on the CDs are these: Groningen, Martinikerk (A. Schnitger 1692, including earlier and later material); Krewerd (1531); Midwolde (L. Eekman 1630); Zeerijp (T. Faber 1651/B. Edskes & B. Blank 1979); Noordwolde (A. Schnitger 1695); Kantens (H. Huis(z)? Ca. 1664); Groningen, Pelstergasthuiskerk (A. Schnitger 1693/1712); Noordbroek (A. Schnitger 1696); Nieuw Scheemda (A. Schnitger 1698); Uithuizen (A. Schnitger 1701); Zandeweer (A.A. Hinsz 1731); Leens (A.A. Hinsz 1734); Appingedam (A.A. Hinsz 1744); Loppersum (A.A. Hinsz 1736); Nieuwolda (J.F. Wenthin 1787); Zuidbroek (H.H. Freytag & F.C. Snitger Jr. 1795); Huizinge (L.J. van Dam/J. van Dam 1825): Farmsum (N.A. Lohman 1829); and Middelstum (P. van Oeckelen 1863). Pictures and stoplists of all of these instruments are found in the last 40 pages of the book.

The first CD is devoted to the Groningen Martinikerk organ. After a recording of J.S. Bach’s Fantasia- in G Major (BWV 572) performed by Wim van Beek, Sietze de Vries performs other works by the master-three settings of Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland (BWV 659, 660, and 661), Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major (BWV 564), and Partita on “Sei gegrüsset” (BWV 768) and a six-verse improvisation on “]esus, meine Zuversicht.” This same approach holds for all of the other organs: repertoire fitting the instrument is heard, followed by improvisations by de Vries. Featured are works by Scheidemann, Cabezon, Sweelinck, Tunder, Buxtehude, Weckmann, Bruhns, Krebs, Kellner, C.P.E. Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. The Groningen Martinikerk organ takes up the first CD, but otherwise the organs are presented in chronological order. (With pipes from around 1450, one could argue that the Martinikerk organ also comes first in chronology.) As can be discerned from the progression of the composers listed. De Vries has picked music to complement the style of the organ. He plays with authority, rhythmic confidence, and great stylistic awareness. His Performances are musical and his imaginative registrations show off the historic instruments.

A strong argument can be made that organs before the mid-19th century should be approached as vehicles for improvisation, not repertoire. When improvising in a style appropriate to the instrument, one is experiencing how the original organ was used. As fine as his playing of the repertoire is, the improvisatori skills of Sietze de Vries are simply amazing. He renders hymn and psalm tunes in the relevant historical style, from early Renaissance dance variations to German chorale preludes to lush Romantic harmonies. These improvisations are the musical highlight of the CDs and present the organs in their best light. Registrations for all repertoire and improvisations are given in the CD booklet.

The DVD takes a slightly different trajectory than the book or the CDs. Selections of some of the recorded music are heard, to be sure, and there is a general presentation of Groningen organ history, but the organ expert Cor Edskes is the star of the video presentation. The DvD begins by introducing Edskes and letting him talk about-organs and organbuilding in Groningen. A local historian, Reint Wobbes, discusses some of the general historical trends in Groningen, but otherwise the organ of the Martinikerk in Groningen takes center stage with Edskes as interlocutor. We see Wim van Beek and Sietze de Vries at the keydesk of the Martinikerk instrument, while the German organbuilder Jürgen Arrend and Edskes take us inside the ínstrument to see pipes and parts of the case. Bernhardt Edskes. An organbuilder now living in Switzerland and brother of Cor, is also featured in the DVD.

Visits to about half a dozen other organs in Groningen are also made to sketch the history from earliest times to the 19th century. One of the most interesting parts is a trip to the Ahrend workshop, where the casting of pipe metal and the making of a metal flue pipe are shown. English subtitles translate the dialogue from Dutch and German. The DVD of course, is in a format compatible witl North American equipment. Except for a translation of “pipe foot” as “boot” the English subtitles are good. Two short YouTube excerpts from the DVD are available on the producer’s Website at Fuguestatefilms.

This is a wonderful compilation of book, DVD, and CD. Although the price seems high, for an elegant hard-bound book, a professionally produced DVD, and five compact disc of historic organs this is actually a good value. So little has been done in English on organs in Groningen that this production deserves attention for that reason alone, but even for a Dutch or German audience this collection is very desirable.

Pronkjuwelen in stad en ommeland is highly recommended.

The American Organist Magazine, 3-9-2011