Where Your Ideas Lead You: An Interview with Martin Schmeding
German organist Martin Schmeding was born in 1975 in Westphalia, and has built an active and varied career as concert organist, recording artist, and professor. Educated in Germany and the Netherlands, Schmeding won prizes in numerous major organ competitions, and has held teaching positions in Hannover, Leipzig, Weimar, Dresden, and Freiburg. In his post as chair of the organ and church music departments at the University of Music in Freiburg, Schmeding succeeded Zsigmond Szathmáry in 2004; his students have won prizes in countless international competitions. Schmeding has held a number of significant organ positions in Germany, including the Neander Church in Düsseldorf, the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, and Ludwig’s Church in Freiburg. As a recording artist, Schmeding has released over 20 albums of music ranging from the Baroque era to the present day. Among his discography are recordings of the complete organ works of Mendelssohn and Franz Schmidt.
Q: It seems that your discography has focused primarily on romantic music (other than your Bach recordings). Does this reflect your primary interests as a player?
A: At the same time that I was studying organ, I also studied the harpsichord and the recorder, and I worked frequently with my own baroque ensemble. Thus my roots can be found in early music. Therefore, when interpreting musical works from earlier times, my basic musical approach always involves the importance of knowledge about the historical context, sources, and instruments. Because this approach has been done less frequently for the romantic repertoire on the organ, it seemed to be an interesting starting point for me to do a series of recordings of romantic organ music. But I would not say it is my primary interest. Apart from the Bach recordings, I just finished a series of five SACDs containing baroque Iberian repertoire on historical organs in Mallorca, which will be released on the Cybele label next year. I also play a great deal of modern and avant-garde organ music too, including a number of premiere performances.
Q: Mendelssohn seems to be one composer to whom there are a large number of approaches that have been applied for the various complete recordings of his organ works. What is your stylistic philosophy in approaching his music—both in terms of your performance decisions and the organ(s) used?
A: Mendelssohn is very interesting for an interpreter, because he stands between the Classical and Romantic periods, especially if one thinks about aspects of interpretation in his music. Therefore you have to find a good balance between both stylistic hemispheres—making clear decisions as to which aspects of baroque and classical interpretation are still important, and then how far you want to go into romantic interpretation as concerns articulation, rubato, sound, and phrasing. For my recordings I chose two instruments—one from Mendelssohn’s time: the Engelhardt organ of St. Pankratius Bockenem, which represents the middle German baroque tradition, but with a number of beautiful romantic stops. This kind of organ was favored by Mendelssohn when he performed his own works. The second organ is the modern Kuhn organ of the Philharmonic Hall in Essen. As I included my transcription of the piano work
, I was looking for an organ with a very clear acoustic and a direct mechanical action to bring out all the pianistic aspects of the piece, but at the same time also possessing enough romantic and orchestral sounds combined with a pureness and clarity of timbre. Kuhn organs of the last decade are good examples of this sort of instrument.
Q: Your disc of Bach transcriptions is an interesting project. Obviously there was a period (particularly in the early 20th century) when these sorts of transcriptions were very much in vogue and played all the time. They then fell out of favor for a number of years, but now are seeing interest again from players. What do you feel is the real value gained by playing these transcriptions either alongside of (or in place of) the original works?
A: Playing transcriptions was very much neglected, during the years when the early-music movement increased more and more. As since now many, perhaps even most, of the general interpretation questions concerning Bach’s repertoire have been discussed, it is interesting to see how different centuries and different stylistic contexts saw Bach’s works and performed them. Therefore, I combined the widest possible kinds of transcriptions, ranging from works that stay very close to the original through paraphrases like Widor’s
. It is very interesting to see how the different aspects of interpretation changed throughout the centuries. One sees for example the complicated transcription by Arno Landmann, adapting the great violin Chaconne in D Minor for a huge late-Romantic German organ (like the Steinmeyer in Christuskirche, Mannheim), or Reger’s transcription of the B-Minor Prelude and Fugue from the
. Even if we already have a wide repertoire of original Bach pieces for the organ, I tried to collect a number of additional works that one would always have liked to play and hear on the organ. This argument is perhaps historically justified since it is the same idea that Bach had, when he transcribed some of the best Vivaldi concertos, and played them alongside his original pieces.
Q: Since you have studied and performed these transcriptions, do you feel your approach to playing non-transcribed Bach organ music has changed at all?
A: When playing transcriptions you often have to find solutions at the technical, instrumental, and musical borderlines, which widen the possibilities of the organ. Through this you get a lot of inspiration for playing the original repertoire, because you can discover solutions you have never thought of before. And then you also find new ideas for playing Bach’s music on non-period instruments, which is perhaps something previously avoided.
Q: You have recorded music for the pedal piano. How does playing this instrument compare with your experiences as an organist? Do you feel that the disappearance of the pedal piano was inevitable?
A: I was lucky to get the opportunity to give the first performance on the first really well-restored original pedal piano by Pleyel in the Schumann anniversary year 2004. This changed my ideas of romantic organ interpretation a great deal. You have to be so sensitive concerning the pedal technique, and every voice must be perfectly dynamically shaped. I think every performer of this repertoire should have the experience to play on a pedal piano. It is a pity that these instruments disappeared sometime around 1930—perhaps, because they had never been developed as real concert instruments or because the kind of versatile pianist-organist, who was able to play both parts of the instruments the right way, was a dying breed. As the concert grand pianos gained more and more of a symphonic sound, the addition of a pedal for orchestral effects—as it was called in the 19th and early 20th centuries—was not needed anymore.
Q: In the booklet notes for your
recording, you say that you believe performing them on organ is a natural further evolution from performing them on harpsichord. Have you performed them on other keyboard instruments besides the organ? Do you feel that performing them on organ is actually an improvement over performing them on the harpsichord, or simply another valid musical option?
A: I tried the work on all different types of instruments: harpsichord, organ, piano, and clavichord. I have to say, all versions have been an inspiration to me. My booklet note is being intentionally a little provocative: It is quite clear that Bach planned the
to be played on a harpsichord, because he is so detailed on the title page of the score. In the 20th century, everything focused on piano versions, as if they were the originals. But the piano is lacking the two manuals with different colors that Bach mentions explicitly on the title page. So I said performing this work on the organ is a further evolution, because you have at least the two manuals and a pedal, and also many more possibilities of color to make interesting timbral changes. Organ versions can amplify certain characters of the variations even better than on the harpsichord—for example, playing the large Overture to the second part on a Grand Jeu of the Silbermann organ is a perfect sound for this part. On the other hand, I have to admit that you have to find certain solutions for small issues that arise when performing them on the organ, especially concerning tempo and the acoustics. As a conclusion, I would say that there is no superior version for any of the instruments. I also like string trio or accordion versions very much—but the organ version is one option, and it can add certain aspects to the piece other instruments can’t.
Q: When thinking about transcribing
for organ, did you consider the possibility of doing a very reworked romantic-style transcription (like the music on your Bach transcriptions album), rather than the relatively baroque version which you did?
A: Modern or romantic versions of the
s have been done many times, for example the Jean Guillou version for modern organ or the Rheinberger version for two pianos. There is also a version by Wilhelm Middelschulte for large romantic organ. My starting point was different. I tried to imagine what instrument and sounds Bach himself might have chosen, if he were playing the piece on an organ of his time. Therefore, I came to the Silbermann organ of Dresden Hofkirche, which seemed to me being the ideal instrument for this piece. It possesses the complete brilliance, clarity, and richness of the late baroque Dresden sound quality, which was admired by Bach a great deal. He really wanted to become a Dresden court composer. Because of this, I tried to change only a few things to make the piece able to be performed on a historical organ, and I stayed as close to the original as possible. Perhaps it could be interesting to make a second recording sometime on a late-Romantic symphonic organ.
Q: How do you go about choosing a particular organ on which to make a recording? Does the repertoire choice always come first and then you seek an instrument? Or has there been a case where you first have an organ on which you wish to record and then you think about what music you could record effectively there?
A: Both are possible. Sometimes I have an idea for repertoire I would like to record. Then I go looking for an ideal instrument with an inspiring sound. I don’t really like recordings like “Buxtehude, Bach, and Reger” with everything played on a modern organ. The instruments I choose are mainly original instruments (and this means not only baroque instruments for baroque music, but also real modern instruments for avant-garde repertoire). But sometimes a project is conceived from the other direction. One day my record producer sent me a picture of a really beautiful organ that I had never seen before and said: “Do you want to make a recording on this organ?” It was the phenomenal late baroque Jordi Bosch organ of Santanyi/Mallorca. We started the recordings two years later, after working to find sponsors for a complete tuning. I was so fascinated with this repertoire and instrument that the organ became the starting point of my large historical organ recording project on Mallorca.
Q: For much of the 20th century, it felt that organ playing, instrument building, and repertoire choices were often bound to very specific traditions and movements that would entirely reject whatever came before. For an organist of your generation, the possibilities are more open in terms of repertoire, instruments, and performance style. Do you find this to be a conducive environment in which to be a concert organist? How do you reconcile these competing forces of the past?
A: As an organist I was educated in very different stylistic traditions. I always tried to get a lot of different influences. My first organ teachers at Hanover University in Germany were pupils of Helmut Walcha and Günther Ramin, and therefore I had very opposite influences at work from the very start. Then I studied in Amsterdam and came into close contact with all the historical instruments and methods of interpretation. During this time I also worked with Jean Boyer, who was for me one of the most inspiring persons concerning the French repertoire. In addition, I was influenced by other aspects of my studies and work: harpsichord, recorder, conducting, and composing. I am really glad that there are no strict border lines anymore concerning what is allowed and not, as there perhaps were more so in the beginning of the 20th century. The starting point is the knowledge about sources, instruments, and interpretation—and on this basis you can go wherever you want and where your ideas lead you.
Martin Schmeding (org)
CYBELE 030.802 (SACD: 74:44)
J.S. BACH ORGAN TRANSCRIPTIONS
Martin Schmeding (org)
ARS PRODUKTION 38109 (SACD: 75:21)
Concerto in d
Introduction & fugue from
Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekümmernis
Final chorus from
St. Matthew Passion,
“Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder”
Pastoral music from
The Well-Tempered Klavier,
Book I: “Miserere Mei” from
after the Prelude in d
(BWV 851, arr. Widor).
Prelude & Fugue in b
(BWV 867, arr. Reger).
“Wachet auf” from the
Sinfonia from the Cantata
Wir danken dir, Gott
Trio Sonata in C
(BWV 1031, arr. Schmeding).
Chaconne from Partita II
(BWV 1004, arr. Landmann)
Praeludium in c.
Allegro moderato maestoso
in C. Theme and Variations in D. Organ Sonatas: in f, c, A, and d.
Martin Schmeding (org)
ARS PRODUKTION 38046 (SACD: 78:49)
Three Preludes and Fugues,
(Trio) in F. Fughetta (
) in A.
in B. Fugue (
) in f.
in d. Fugue in e. Organ Sonatas: in D and B
Martin Schmeding (org)
CYBELE ARS 38 047 (SACD: 74:44)