February 11th 2009

Review from January 2009


Tilo MEDEK (1940-2006)
Organ Works
Wandlungs-Passacaglia (2001) [5:09]
B-a-c-h, Vier Töne für Orgel (1973) [7:44]
Verschüttete Bauernflöte (1969) [11:22]
Quatemberfeste für Orgel (1989) [29:16]
Gebrochene Flügel (1975) [7:42]
Rückäufige Passacaglia (1979) [11:02]
Martin Schmeding (organ)
rec. 25-27 March 2008, Evang. Aufstehungskirche, Düsseldorf-Oberkassel.
CYBELE SACD 060.801 [72:21]  



My experience with the music of Tilo Medek had, until receiving this CD, only been in playing his Abfahrt einer Dampflokomotive for flute ensemble – one performance of which can be seen on YouTube. I’m the one with the biggest flute: excellent for making steam train noises. That particular piece is full of smoky, pictorial East-German proto-minimalism, but wasn’t really much in the way of a preparation for the contents of this valuable new disc from Cybele.

The works are not programmed in chronological order, though that is the way they are dealt with in Martin Schmeding’s fine and detailed booklet notes. Much as Medek resisted the repressive regime of the German Democratic Republic, so his organ work often resists the temptation to use the instrument in conventional ways, seeking new colours and tunings - at times to startling effect. Think of the parts in Keith Jarrett’s ‘Hymns and Spheres’ where he uses the stops pulled out half way – which Medek’s work predates despite the claims on that original 1976 ECM LP sleeve, or Ligeti’s Volumina or Etude No.1, ‘Harmonies’, and you have some aural image of the way Medek bends and teases the tones and chords in a most un-organ like way. He also uses it almost percussively, with jabbed chords like a bed of nails, and sometimes with a surprisingly graceful refinement, bowing to the deep debt we all owe to musical history, and perhaps revealing aspects of his own background in musicology.

Wandlungs-Passacaglia is such a work, breaking us in gently with a surprisingly restrained gesture towards the past. The English translation of the note on this piece has unfortunately been lost in the layout behind a nice photo of Medek with Irina and Alfred Schnittke, but from what I can tell it is a piece which had its origins as part of a larger oratorio. The conventional, almost Karg-Elert style passacaglia theme builds through several cycles, but doing little more than getting our ears tuned up to the rich character of the Sauer organ. Sample B-a-c-h, Vier Töne für Orgel is more ‘avant-garde’ and of its time, being an anti-complex study on the four b-a-c-h tones, exploring the tonal variety of the organ, as well as introducing morse code, Mozart’s symphony in G minor, a funeral march and other elements. There is some gorgeous bending of notes done by manipulating the stops, and magical effects with the de-tuned notes of the final few minutes. Hearing a Beethovenian development of four notes for nearly eight minutes may not seem very digestible, but we do learn a great deal along the way. Sample

Verschüttete Bauernflöte or ‘Buried rustic Flute’ was Tilo Medek’s first piece for organ. Inspired by the sound and possibilities of the large organ in Merseburg Cathederal, the composer uses extremes of registration – high and low, to go against the conventional notions of what an organ should sound like. There is a great deal of material which draws in from the polarisation of the opening, but there is a huge amount of ‘different’ colour in the sound, which gives the music a juicy textural quality, even while the actual notes seem to verge on tonal anarchy. Sample - opening The final three minutes or so are quite sublime, with the creepy slides of the gradually opening stops, stabbing chords and gasps from the pipes giving up their ghostly presence to a sequence of almost medieval timelessness.  

Quatemberfeste für Orgel or ‘Ember Days’ is a four movement cycle composed for the inauguration the new Karl Schuke organ of the St. Lamberti parish church. This piece contains popular elements, such as the surprisingly appealing set of songs and dances in the opening movement, Lambertussingen. This is followed by a lyrical movement; The Tower Horn, in which the organ plays a fictitious ‘duet’ with the warden of the tower.  Echoes of Angels is another lyrical piece, the title referring to a radar technologist’s term for atmospheric interference. The real showstopper is the final Schnurrpfeifereien, which throws all of the available effects of the instrument into the melting pot. These include bells, ‘Vox celestis’, and various birdsong elements such as cuckoos and nightingales. Even with the expected spectacle of the conclusion the music is actually quite subtle and refined, and, while the crowd-pleasing aspect of such a commissioned work has to be a consideration it is good to hear the craftsmanship of a remarkable and skilled composer at work on an instrument with which he clearly felt a great affinity. Sample - end of Schnurrpfeifereien.

One of the most incredible pieces on this disc has to be Gebrochene Flügel or ‘Broken Wings’. It is certainly the most extreme in terms of the use of half-pulled stops, and the effects of the de-tuning this creates are both disorientating and awe-inspiring at the same time. Sample The running notes of the middle section are something like the soundtrack of a pub space-invaders game played in a huge bath of honey-soaked ping-pong balls, and the point at which the motor for the air pump is switched off at around 6:20 creates one of the most unearthly and breathtakingly marvellous musical sounds I have ever heard while in a waking state. Sample

We end as we began, with a passacaglia. Rückäufige Passacaglia or ‘Retrograde Passacaglia’ was one of the pieces Medek wrote after being ejected from the GDR and welcomed into the musical circles of West Germany. The ‘retrograde’ nature of the piece inhabits its very material, and is not merely a mechanical use of inversion techniques. There are also some remarkable colour effects and plenty of drama in the climactic central section, making this a strong piece with which to conclude a potent programme. Sample   

I have but one complaint about this CD, and it has nothing to do with music. If there’s one thing I can’t stand about ‘design’ these days, it is the trend for not using capital letters. The German language is very capital-letter specific, and the inconsistency and troublesome flicking back and forth between the back cover and referring to the correct usage in the booklet notes this reviewer had to do while typing out the header at the top of this page will go some way towards explaining my gripe. In any case it’s an unnecessary distortion of language, and, no doubt doing the proverbial into a strong head wind, I wish hereby to protest in the strongest possible terms and cast my vote for the re-instatement of appropriate capitals for Cybele CD covers, film credits and everything else.

Back to the music, and I have to say this is one of the best organ CDs I’ve heard for some time. The SACD quality is excellent, with some stunning spatial effects. Take the hocketing between low pipes towards the end of the Retrograde Passacaglia for instance. The sense of air and space in the church is something in which one can become totally immersed, and Medek’s music never anything less than absorbing, and more often than not staggeringly impressive. Martin Schmeding’s playing is superlatively good – good enough to allow you to forget there is someone working the instrument and providing 100% transparency for the music. If you are a fan of the 20th century organ you owe it to yourself to own this disc.

  Dominy Clements      



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