Ton Koopman

Batalha: Iberian Organ Music

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Ton Koopman's organ recordings may be less well known than his work as a historical-performance conductor, but they're well worth investigating even for casual fans of the Baroque organ. He has a knack for finding appealing material and interpreting it in a way that, to put it simply, is a lot of fun. If you find Koopman's booklet notes online (written in French, given in English and German translations as well), you may be confused by the sentence "What a joy it is to play on fine Iberian historic organs." In fact, the organ heard here is neither historic nor Iberian; it is an organ in a church in suburban Brussels, built in the Spanish style in 1985. Koopman said it "speaks with a slight Brussels accent." But he's quite right that it sounds entirely unlike the North German organs familiar to anyone who owns a few Bach discs, and, as with those instruments, it seems to have an almost symbiotic relationship with the music written for instruments of its type. The most distinctive pieces are the three called Batalha, or battle. Pieces representing the sounds of battle were composed all over Europe, but the three anonymous Spanish-Portuguese examples heard here are unique. The organ's trumpet stop, Koopman said, produces a sound "so loud that any rustling in the church immediately falls silent." The trumpet blasts are matched by large areas of harmonic stasis (sample the really remarkable extension of the tonic major chord in the Batalha Famoza, track 6), which, paradoxically, beautifully represent scenes of pure action, in which time seems to slow down. The other pieces are a mixture of sacred and secular, and most of them have counterparts in the styles of other countries: there are pieces designated as canção, corresponding to the Italian-Netherlandish canzona; there are arrangements of vocal pieces (the curiously named "Susana" of Manuel Rodrigues Coelho is based on the Lassus chanson, Susanne du jour); there is a work probably by Juan Bautista José Cabanilles with the name "Ligadures" that is of the semi-improvised Elevation toccata type. There is even a Classical-era sonata by Carlos de Seixas that seems better suited to the harpsichord (although the organ has been suggested as an appropriate instrument for both Seixas and Scarlatti). It's a bit out of place, but it adds color and variety to an already hugely enjoyable program. The sound, as usual with the Dutch label Challenge Classics, is clear and detailed.

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