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Madsen and New 17th-century-style Harpsichord Celebrate Hamburg Legacy


Mr. Madsen is no stammering academic. He engages his audience with an entertaining verbal anchoring of the music in its time and place, showing a familiarity with the historical, linguistic, and cultural milieu that is unusual for an American musician. Though he adeptly draws his listeners in, he is clearly speaking from the point of view of an experienced performer-researcher, and he does not shy away from peppering general remarks with the technically specific minutiæ that deepen experienced listeners’ relish of seldom encountered or, as with this program, heretofore unheard scores.

Mid-17th-c. Italian harpsichord after Grimaldi, by Robert Hicks (2009) (Christopher Greenleaf Photo)
Mid-17th-c. Italian harpsichord after Grimaldi, by Robert Hicks (2009) (Christopher Greenleaf Photo)

Once upon a prosperous time, Hamburg was the glowing musical jewel of the German Hansestädte. Just before and after 1600, the city’s great metropolitan churches funded advanced schooling of promising young organist-composers by Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, northern Europe’s premiere Organistenmacher, in Amsterdam. The mid-17th century had steeped itself in the strong, new stock of the Baroque, yet late-Renaissance keyboard runs in either hand and brilliant or pensive toccata-esque passages still permeated the nascent forms with an olden flavor. Mr. Madsen demonstrated this first on a spanking new 17th-c. Italian harpsichord by builder Robert Hicks (Lincoln, VT). The pungent, rich sound of the two 8’ ranks of strings truly filled First Lutheran’s intimate, resonant nave. The small, attentive audience drank in this fresh, unfamiliar repertoire, whose impact and beauty are unthinkable without the bold, stark savor of  — in this instance —sixth-comma meantone temperament. The opening Präludium in d by Heinrich Scheidemann, music director at Hamburg’s celebrated Katharinenkirche, was arresting. Its striking contrast with a darkly seething Toccata in a by quirky, bold Matthias Weckmann (busy across town at the prestigious Jakobikirche) not only displayed another facet of Mr. Madsen’s assured and wonderfully emotive playing, it opened the door for the treasures to follow. With illuminating spoken commentary beforehand, he laid out a less familiar composer’s take on the keyboard side of the nascent Stilus phantasticus. In Hanover organist Melchior Schildt’s setting of Dowland’s much-arranged Pavana Lachrimæ, or “Flow, my tears”, he unambigously “took his own direction” in abandoning the song’s cantabile to milk the harmonic tensions so beloved in the viol and lute repertoire of a previous generation. A seasoned improvisor, Mr. Madsen fashioned a brief Prelude to head a compact and sumptuous Suite [Partita II] in d from the hand of Weckmann. The quick succession of Allemand, Gigue, Courant, Saraband, and La Double [a further development of what the Saraband was about] was most enjoyable. The bold and many-hued Grimaldi-style harpsichord First Lutheran music director Bálint Karosi commissioned from Robert Hicks never stopped surprising listeners with new sounds. Mr. Madsen’s careful meantone tuning was a joy.

<p>Console & straight pedalboard, Richards, Fowkes organ, Op. 10 (2000) (</p>
Console & straight pedalboard, Richards, Fowkes organ, Op. 10 (2000) (Christopher Greenleaf Photo)

The exceptional two-manual North German organ by Richards, Fowkes & Co. (Ooltewah, TN) sounded forth with music in somewhat the same style, but of very different texture and character. One would have expected that the timbral wealth and power of the organ would eclipse the quieter statement made earlier by the fragile voice of the cembalo. It was a surprise and a pleasure, though, to be able to bear the persuasive, markedly quieter strains of Weckmann and Scheidemann on the harpsichord well in mind as the organ, and those same composers, had the persuasive last word. Scheidemann again began things, signaling the change in sound production and temperament (a mild, late-18th-c. tuning after Georg Chr. Kellner) with a brief Präludium in C for the organ’s full, dark plenum. No German Advent slips by without Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, so Mr. Madsen underpinned multi-voice, once more darkly registered manual progressions with a memorably extrovert Pedal evocation of the Lutheran choral, his own improvisation. Next, he opposed – no other word suggests itself – iterations of Gelobet seist du, Jesu Christ by Weckmann and colleague Scheidemann, concluding with two short organo pleno perusals of Scheidemann scores, a Magnificat and a Präludium, both in G. So much full organ would have worn thin, had not the scores, this player, and the profoundly satisfying instrument been so delightful to hear. An expert, forward-thrusting Toccata Mr. Madsen improvised as an encore pitted chordal echoes between the two manual Werke against a last dollop of Stilus phantasticus fantasy. At full organ, to be sure.

Early- and mid-17th-century keyboard music is not all interchangeable among clavichord, virginal, harpsichord and organ, but enough of it is to afford performers an enjoyable wealth of choices. Modern recordings of the music mirror this natural diversity of approach refreshingly. The musical language of the three composers heard on this candlelit Advent evening embodies an æsthetic that owes much to late Renaissance Amsterdam, arguably something to distant Italy, and a great deal to the North’s fervent embrace of the then century-old Reformation. Rich though Hanseatic Hamburg already was, there was not yet that later, greater wealth that furnished private rooms and churches with astonishing numbers of keyboard instruments. Much of the contemporary Hamburg repertoire that has survived is not overtly specific to the organ or to the cembalo, as was indeed generally the case all over Europe at the time. Original scores are sometimes in the dense shorthand of organ tablature or provide only wispy clues as to interpretation. The performer’s familiarity with the style’s every facet and his willingness to leap into comprehensive improvisation are therefore a must, if the music is to convince today. Andrus Madsen is an engaging performer committed to ongoing introduction of repertoire that just preceded, or existed in shadowed parallel with, the more familiar bright lights of the Baroque.

Christopher Greenleaf is a veteran recording engineer who collaborates with chamber, early, and keyboard musicians in natural acoustic venues on both sides of the Atlantic. He is active as a writer, translator, photographer, and acoustic consultant.

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