Notes from the Netherlands

 by Nigel C.B. Durrant

 BY the time these words appear in print we will be more than halfway through ‘Buxtehude year’ and in The Netherlands we must surely be proud of the scope of its expatiation. Not surprisingly, admittedly, in historic cities with world-renowned organs, but the less frequently visited province of Zeeland, for example, also staged a two-month festival that has included an exhibition about the composer, a ‘Buxtehude for everybody’ day devoted to his organ music and, intriguingly, a children’s entertainment entitled ‘With Bach to Bux’. In Amsterdam, by the time this festival had got under way, an imposing –  permanent – innovation had already been inaugurated and we can already applaud the first fruits of its initiators’ labours. I refer to the so-called ‘Organ-Park’ in Amsterdam: a redundant Dutch Reformed church in the Vondelpark which is now a platform for all aspects of organ culture, specifically from about 1870 onwards. We have here a concert venue and conference centre dedicated to the advance of traditional insights into, as well as the cultivation of novel directions for, the employment of the organ. The roomy, colourful interior (I have been told that more than 40 shades of paint were used) is so appointed that seating can be arranged according to the dictates of whatever programme is to be given. The original stained-glass windows have been replaced by sound-insulating double-glazing covered with layers of printed transparent coloured foil illustrating the history of the building. There is no shortage of musical instruments: the hall can boast a two-manual Mustel ‘Kunst-harmonium’ (the upper manual being a celesta), two grand pianos (one modern, one parallel-strung, built in 1899) and an Elbertse continuo organ. The main concert instruments are an early 20th century Austrian salon organ by Molzer and a 1956 Van Leeuwen organ complementing the fully restored instrument from the Sauer workshops (Wilhelm Sauer himself died in 1916) at Frankfurt an der Oder that was built for the church in 1922. (Molzer was essentially a supplier of barrel-organs. The Amsterdam instrument has long since lost its automaton gubbins but, characteristically, its history is being seriously researched.) This already remarkable parley of instruments can look forward to a new companion in 2009, a Cavaillé-Coll-type organ currently being built by Verschueren of Heythuysen. A biannual glossy magazine (which reminds one physically of the Sears Roebuck catalogue), Timbres, publishes programmes and detailed articles pertaining to this Orgelpark. A commendable feature of the programming is the series of Wednesday-lunchtime ‘workshop’ concerts (perhaps ‘showroom’ concerts would be preferable) which each week offer a student from selected music academies (including Moscow in the first season) the opportunity to “pull out all the stops” —  to devise an hour-long programme entirely as he sees fit, with no restrictions as to repertoire, dress or presentation. In the first of these recitals a young German organist (dressed Dutchly in black jacket and jeans) gave us two three-movement improvisations on the ‘big’ organs and, on the salon organ, a toccata by Dubois and: Jesu, joy of man’s desiring! For the final scherzo of his second improvisation he donned headphones: we weren’t told why. Possibly to underline the joke, though a mischievously wayward neuron in my brain whispered that he wanted to catch the end of the one o’clock news.

   There is nothing novel in the idea of a church possessing more than one organ. In the chequered history of The Netherlands this custom arose because organs in churches were intended more to reflect the wealth of a town than to serve in religious ritual: when required a separate instrument sited for liturgical convenience was brought in to support public worship. Such (by their nature) smaller organs can be musically highly significant and it is refreshing to see that they are sometimes effectively incorporated into recital programmes. The recitalist can then provide his colourful programme on the erstwhile pride of the city fathers with a gentle prelude. Music interpreted on a small organ can be just as rewarding as big brother’s thunder. A recital on a responsive small instrument often attracts where one would be apprehensive of some travelling adept’s management of a neighbouring leviathan. Full marks, then, to the organisers of Leiden University’s short lunchtime ‘walk-in’ concerts who offered this year’s series in the Lokhorstkerk while the Academiegebouw itself undergoes renovation. The organ, originally built by the Austrian J.J. Mitterreither for this little Mennonite church in 1774, was restored by Flentrop in 1999 to its situation in 1807, when Lambertus van Dam extended it. Looking at this pedigree one might have great expectations. One would not be disappointed. Another arrangement featuring a small organ much nearer home always offers real satisfaction. I use the word arrangement advisedly; ‘concert series’ would be too grand, though not inaccurate. My colleague Leen Nijdam, who is organist in the Protestant church in an R.C. parish where I am organist, is rightly proud of his originally one-manual 6˝-rank 1975 Flentrop to which the same builder added a 4-rank positive section and a single-rank pedal in 2002. Lack of space for pedal pipes was successfully overcome by placing them horizontally on the gallery floor. Since then he has given there two concerts each summer, the composers chosen ranging from Sweelinck and Ghisbert Steenwick to Jean Langlais and Bohuslav Martinu; daringly, as the organ is tuned to a Werckmeister temperament. A small organ in a small church, but a discerning regular audience always goes home satisfied and hankering for more.

   In June I went to an exhibition of artefacts from Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, in Bonn. Harmless enough, thought my companion for this visit; not an organ in sight. I was therefore somewhat surprised — and said companion much disconcerted — when, turning away from a view of Russian soldiers bloodily conquering Turkmenistan, we were confronted by several ranks of organ-pipes. Sneaking off alone to investigate, I came upon three more ranks skulking behind a notice announcing an impending concert of Russian music — Pictures at an Exhibition, Stenka Razin, The Rite of Spring, that sort of thing. I dared not suggest we sit and listen, but the hidden horror of it all nevertheless became apparent in the adjoining rooms when the two performers attacked their Russian repertoire on a multiplicity of histrionic saxophones accompanied by two street-organs. The end of the performance surely exemplified the acme of depravity as The Bum of the Flightle-Bee merged into Khachaturyan’s Sabre-Dance with its manic xylophone obbligato arranged as a duet for — the street-organs! Now what, you may ask, has this sciolistic rendering of notes from Russia in their German (and Turkmen) setting to do with The Netherlands? Answer: the street-organs originated, scandalously, from a Dutch workshop (and were seemingly of first-rate manufacture, which somehow makes it worse). When my fellow traveller asked what I thought of the whole circus my answer was a brusque Dutch afgrijselijk. Look it up in a dictionary and you will see that I could not appreciate it at all!




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