CD Review


© Siebe Riedstra, September 2009



Becker: The Complete Organ Works

Drei kleine Orgelstücke (1978) - A la mémoire de Josquin (1975) - Interpolationen (1993) - Meteoron for organ, percussion and two-track tape recording (1969).

Christian Roderburg (percussion) - Martin Schmeding at the Sauer Organ (2004), Auferstehungskirche, Düsseldorf-Oberkassel. Germany.

Cybele 060.701 • 50' • (sacd)

German composer Günther Becker was born in 1924, two years before Hans Werner Henze, four years before Karlheinz Stockhausen and six years after Bernd Alois Zimmermann. As a boy he showed musical talent on the accordion, as an adolescent he was sent to the Eastern Front in World War II. When he made it back, despite suffering from severe frostbite, he was sent out again to Italy, where he was taken prisoner of war by the American forces. After the war he studied music in Karlsruhe and privately composition with Wolfgang Fortner. In Heidelberg he worked as pianist in a satirical cabaret and for ballet classes, before continuing his studies with Fortner at the Detmold Academy. In 1956 he went to Greece as music teacher (and private tutor to Prince Constantine). He kept in contact with the West-German music scene, visiting and lecturing several times at the summer courses in Darmstadt. After the military coup of 1968 he left Greece and returned to Germany, and founded the live electronic music group MegaHertz. He taught composition and live-electronics at the Robert Schumann Institute in Düsseldorf, where he took on the mantle of Milko Kelemen and attracted a body of pupils from around the world. Becker retired from teaching in 1989 and moved as a freelance composer to Bad Lippspringe, where he died in 2007.

Günther Becker has disowned his youthful compositions and distanced himself from the earliest of his published works. He left the dodecaphonic classicism of Schoenberg and the epigrammatic style of Webern and turned to a new style around 1960. His interest in electronic music obviously influenced his instrumental writing. Linear thinking is replaced by multilayered procedures, as introduced by Ligeti in the sixties. Becker kept one aspect of the hard-core avant-gardism of Darmstadt alive: his music is highly dissonant and makes no compromise to the listener.

The German record label Cybele has taken Günther Becker under its wing with love and care. This cd is the fifth in an ongoing effort to issue the complete music of this composer, who, despite his importance, hardly could be labeled a public favorite. So far four titles have appeared: Portrait - Cybele 660.202 (2cd); Miscellaneous works by the Notabu.ensemble - Cybele 360.201; Electro acoustic Music - Cybele SACD 960.401; Magnum Mysterium - Cybele SACD 960.402. It is certainly telling that a piece like Magnum Mysterium has had precisely three performances. That live performance from 1980 was issued in 2004, carefully upgraded to SACD. The same goes for the three pieces on the electro acoustic cd, making that issue highly interesting for students of this repertoire in its pre-digital phase.

The cd at hand is a brand new affair: a pure 5 channel super audio recording, made in 2008 and containing the complete works for organ. Martin Schmeding plays the 2004 Sauer organ (III/65) at the Evangelische Auferstehungskirche in Düsseldorf-Oberkassel. This instrument bears the name 'Felix Mendelssohn' Europa organ, and its concept was largely developed by Oskar Gottlieb Blarr, composer, and organist of the Neander Church in Düsseldorf. The result is an organ in which the horizontal reed stops of Spain, the principals and tremulants of Italy, the cornets of France and the mixture stops of Germany are unified in a single instrument. Its compass has been extended by a large variety of overtone stops, for instance a blues fourth (1 1/7' + 16/19').

The four titles on this cd cover a period of almost a quarter century, beginning in 1969, with what has become Becker's best known composition, Meteoron for organ, percussion and two-track tape recording. Meteoron was written one year after Becker left Greece, and sounds like a fond farewell. In it, Becker reacts to recent avant-garde developments in organ writing, as witnessed in Ligeti's Volumina and Kagel's Improvisations ajoutées. These new techniques included unusual handling of the instrument, such as switching the wind machine on and off during play, and manipulating the sound by opening stops halfway. Becker does not apply any of these techniques, he remains true to traditional playing (if one could call it that) as did Olivier Messiaen, another great modernizer of organ music in the twentieth century.

Meteoron is the name of the main monastery located among the gigantic Meteora boulders in western Thessaly. Byzantine monks chanting hymns for Pentecost provide the raw material for the tape tracks. Organ and percussion are equal partners and build a monolithic structure out of big granite boulders of sound. The dry heat and the sundrenched landscape are almost palpable. It has proven to be an important addition to the repertoire, now forty years young and taken up by several organists.

À la mémoire de Josquin dates from 1975 and uses very clear quotations from a number of masses by this composer. These quotations function as interludes in a structure that once again is built much like multi-layered electronic music. Drei kleine Orgelstücke originated as interludes in a concert of sacred music to commemorate the wooden sculpture 'Mother and Child' by Hans Schweizer. They are subtitled Meditation I, Litanei, and Meditation II.

After a long hiatus Becker returned to the organ in 1993, with Interpolationen, a free toccata of sorts. Here Becker combines fast passages of linear sound with great washes of layered clusters. Messiaen's Livre d'orgue sometimes springs to mind. It is a highly virtuosic piece, premiered by Werner Jacob, who also saw Meteoron to light.

Martin Schmeding, professor for Organ at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg/Breisgau, has made several fine recordings for Cybele. He is aided and abetted by the label's driving force, Ingo Schmidt-Lucas, who has captured a beautiful and true-to-life sound image in stellar super audio sound. Schmeding is also involved in a definitive registration of the complete organ works of Franz Schmidt - not to be missed. Here he delivers what must certainly be the benchmark recording of this thorny, but ultimately very rewarding repertoire. Certainly, Meteoron will prove to be a classic in the repertoire for organ and electronic sounds.