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Musique et mémoire have released two lavishly produced recordings of French organist Jean-Charles Ablitzer in repertoire from late 16th- and early 17th-century Germany. Both are strongly conceived and the historical narratives of each are intertwined.

In 1596, the Halberstadt organ builder David Beck’s 59-stop instrument for the Castle of Gröningen (not to be confused with the Dutch organ mecca of Groningen) was festively inaugurated and tested by no fewer than 53 organists. These included Hieronymous Praetorius, Hans Leo Hässler and Michael Praetorius. The organ had been commissioned by Duke Heinrich Julius, who in turn was advised by Michael Praetorius, and its extensive inauguration and those present are well documented. Among the visitors was Beck’s friend Esaias Compenius, builder of the famous 1610 organ in Frederiksborg and whose organ style is closely associated with Michael Praetorius (as anyone who has tried to decipher the registration instructions in the latter’s Syntagma Musicum will know...). Compenius also left a registration table for an organ at Harbke in Saxony-Anhalt, and it is on this organ that Ablitzer records his disc of music that could have been heard at the famous Gröningen organists’ meeting of 1596. In fact the Harbke organ today is reconstructed according to the situation left by Treutmann (1728) but includes 12 stops dating from Fritzsche’s organ of 1622, which in turn included a number of stops from the Compenius organ. Ablitzer uses the Compenius document as the basis for a registration philosophy especially concerned with economy of wind, contrast, various special effects relating to the consort ideal and the use of mixture stops to colour solo lines – the very antithesis, as Ablitzer points out, of the Bach-era registrations published by Kauffmann in 1733.

The second CD takes us to Fredericksborg. The repertoire consists of (both modern and historic) transcriptions of dances and vocal music by Michael Praetorius, who refers directly to this most enigmatic organ in the second part of the Syntagma Musicum: ‘…its sonority so strange, soft, sweet subtle and delicate could not in truth be described’. Although now lost in its original form, a document found inside the organ indicates that Praetorius himself guided its construction. What a miracle that this incredible organ has been preserved so completely! Ablitzer is aided here by two excellent soloists: William Dongois (cornet) and Christian Wegmann (tenor).

These are fascinating, thought-provoking sound documents, meticulously researched and beautifully packaged. Ablitzer’s playing is very good, if occasionally lacking some strong characterisation. The second disc, however, is completely beguiling.

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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