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The Haarlem Essays has been published to mark the 50th edition of the Haarlem International Organ Festival. Confusingly, the event, with the international improvisation competition as its main raison d’être, began in 1951 but became biennial in 1987. This excellent festschrift falls broadly into three sections. The first consists of essays documenting the genesis of the festival. Initially occurring within the context of the international Holland Festival, the trend-setting, and much copied, improvisation competition was promoted as a means of profiling culture in the city of Haarlem and was instigated at the expense of another proposal, namely to build an open-air theatre. The 1951 competition featured players invited from different countries; the winner, Louis Toebosch, defeated Piet Kee and Lionel Dakers, among others. The accompanying academy came later, building on the teachings of Heiller, Alain and Tagliavini and growing exponentially; today it regularly hosts well over 100 participants.

Among the short essays on each of the Haarlem organs, Frits Elshout’s description of the Bavo instrument is notable for its detailed and dispassionate analysis of Marcussen’s 1960 ‘restora- tion’, which occasioned considerable debate. It is interesting to learn from Stephen Taylor’s accompanying essay that the organ’s lot was so controversial even then that it led to questions being raised in the Dutch parliament. Jan Hage provides an insightful account of the problems raised by the set themes for the competition. A modern idiom was specified from the beginning but during the 1960s and ’70s especially, the themes often became so prescriptive (flirting regularly with serialism) as to alienate any participants who failed to share stylistic empathy. Accounts of the dramatis personae includes interviews with Anders Bondeman (who won in 1965 following improvisation study with Cor Kee) and Piet Kee, the present City Organist Jos van der Kooy, a 1963 interview with the organ’s regis- trant, Henk Lasschuit, and another with present incumbent Agnes Hylkema, and Peter Planyavsky’s notes on the 2012 finalists (a rare glimpse behind the jury’s curtain). Among the essays on broader musical questions linked to Haarlem, Joris Verdin’s contextualising of the 19th-century French organ art is characteristically alternative and valuable, staunchly and rightly defending the contribution of Lefébure-Wély, among others. Roman Summereder’s contextual account of the development of the modernist repertoire from Reger via Schmidt, Hindemith and David to Messiaen, Ligeti and Kagel is excellent, while 1950s essays by Marie-Claire Alain on the relevance of the ‘modern’ (ie Marcussen) organ (somewhat dogmatic) and Anton Heiller on modern organ building have become somewhat provocative with 60 years of hindsight. What a visionary Heiller was, incidentally, asking already in 1953, ‘Could it not be that a somewhat heavier coupler mechanism is indicative of an acceptable tempo in coupled “organo pleno”?’ The appendices include a full list of participants and jury members in the competition’s history (did you know that Sir Andrew Davis, no less, was one of the competitors in 1968?), as well as all of the set themes.

The accompanying CD features recordings from the competition archive of the five ‘silver tulip’ winners (in the early days, the winner was obliged to defend his prize up to twice – the silver tulip was awarded to three-time victors), namely Piet Kee (demonstrating phenomenal contrapuntal discipline), André Isoir, Jan Raas, Jan Jongepier and Hans Haselböck. The other two improvisations are taken from the 2010 final. Although fine, and documenting the organ as it sounds today following revoicing work by Flentrop, it is regrettable that recordings of neither Anton Heiller nor Klaas Bolt, both of whose contributions to the Haarlem organ culture were incalculable, are included as a result. The CD is nevertheless significant in being the first commercial recording featuring the organ in both its pre- and post-1960 guises. Despite the changes made in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Witte and Marshalkerweerd respectively, the older record- ings clearly document an organ from the same stable as those at Leeuwarden and Beverwijk: gutsy, bold, dramatic. The change in the later recordings is profound. One senses, both in the release of this recording and in the sanctioning of Elshout’s and Taylor’s essays, that the Haarlem organ community is now confronting the organ’s modern history more objectively than used to be the case. The instrument remains captivating, but the pre-1960 recordings are tantalising nevertheless.

This is the sort of book that appears all too infrequently, presenting a vast array of highly relevant analysis in the context of one of the European organ culture’s driving forces, its 60 years of influ- ence neatly articulated by Luigi Fernando Tagliavini: ‘In 1960 Haarlem was an isolated lighthouse. Today, despite the fact that there are organ academies throughout the world, Haarlem – with its organs, its academies and its improvisation competition – surely remains one of the most eminent epicentres of organ culture.’

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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