What an inspired bunch they were, the composers of the north German organ school! In fact that should read 'north European', because you have to include Sweelinck in that illustrious tradition that began with Arnolt Schlick (First Printed Organ Music ) and developed via the Netherlandish "maker of organists", the two Praetorius families, Scheidt, Scheidemann, Weckmann, Böhm, Buxtehude, Bruhns, not to mention some other fellow beginning with B. Not only did every one of them, by all accounts, perform superbly, but the compositions they left behind form an apparently inexhaustible store of treasures for today's organists and listeners.
Until about sixty years ago, however, that store didn't include the works of Heinrich Scheidemann, because much of his output was rediscovered only in the 1950s by the musicologist Gustav Fock in a library in Clausthal-Zellerfeld, Germany. The present recording brings us one of the most remarkable groups of works from that collection - namely, the composer's settings of the Magnificat on the eight church tones. Each one consists of four verses, typically an eloquent opening statement of the cantus firmus, a 4-part chorale fantasy, a 4-part ricercare and a closing organ chorale based on the cantus firmus - although not invariably in that order. Make no mistake, these are splendid works, beautifully structured, varied and imaginative; what's more, they are superbly played here by Karin Nelson on an instrument that would be well worth hearing for itself even if you couldn't stand the music - namely the modern 'North German Baroque organ' in the Örgryte nya kyrka (New Church) of Gothenburg, Sweden, built in emulation of the Hamburg and Lübeck designs of Arp Schnitger,. There's a fine photo of this instrument in the accompanying booklet.
The range of technique and expression in these pieces brings rich rewards. The majestic opening verse of each setting sounds forth with a rhetoric fit to accompany the Gettysburg Address, and the more extended chorale fantasy movements are a delight. One interesting feature of a few of the settings is when the fourth and last verse, rather than returning with the full-scale panache of the opening, brings the work to a quiet, contemplative close. It's hard to pick out a favourite, because each hearing turns up something different, but I find the setting of Magnificat III. Toni especially brilliant, with a stunning opening flourish (CD1, track 9) that will blow your socks off, followed by a lovely chorale fantasy (10) with superb echo effects that show off both performer and instrument to perfection. The V. Toni setting (CD2, tracks 1-4) is another masterpiece, an elegant structure forming a satisfyingly rounded sequence. Another favourite for me is the setting on the 6th Tone, which has an extended, beautifully developed fantasy (CD2, track 6) with glorious organ registrations to match.
In addition to Scheidemann's seven Magnificat settings there are two others which, Karin Nelson argues in her excellent booklet notes, are not by Scheidemann but by his student(s). But the composer of the first of these, Magnificat VII. Toni, is clearly no slouch either; and the final Fantasy VIII. Toni, a little different in style and format from the Scheidemann works, is a lovely single-movement piece with, again, marvellous echo effects - perhaps a little short on structure and unity but still a magnificently inventive ramble.
As well as making a splendid introduction to Scheidemann and a fine companion to the few available recordings of his other music such as Leo van Doeselaar's excellent Organ Works, the present set offers a fascinating comparison with the eight superb, although somewhat less elaborate, Magnificat settings composed by Hieronymus Praetorius a generation earlier Praetorius: Organ Works. As for Scheidemann, Karin Nelson has the full measure of his remarkable music and perfectly captures its style and spirit; the organ is magnificent and the recording excellent. Altogether this is a wonderful set, recommended without hesitation to all enthusiasts of the brilliance, majesty and invention of the north German organ tradition.