September 6th was a gorgeous late summer day in and around Munich—and it started with a trip to Ottobeuren in the far south-west corner of Bavaria. On the way toward Ottobeuren you drive through and over the many rolling, lush-green-grassy Allgäu hills—most of them with the typical hill-top farms on it. And just as you get over the top of yet another one of them, the little village comes into view, dominated by the large white, imposing and very beautiful baroque basilica and abbey. It sits amid and above Ottobeuren (population 8000), like a gargantuan white hen roosting on its nest... still lower than the surrounding hilltops but itself above the rest of the village with stone steps cutting through the grass hill on which it chose to hatch its ecclesiastic eggs. Music lovers might know the place from the annual concerts (and recordings—some with Bernstein, for example, are quite famous) of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the cathedral.
Inside, at its eastern end in front of the altar stand to the left and right the Heilig Geist (Holy Ghost) organ, and the Dreifaltigkeits (Trinity) organ by the German/French-school master organ builder Karl Joseph Riepp… a masterpiece of organ construction essentially unmodified since their premiere in 1766, even if it isn’t necessarily the favorite of everyone who has to (or gets to) play it. Among them were the eight semi-finalists of the organ competition who went out to Ottobeuren on their second day of their semi final to perform on it music of the organ’s time, including that of Franz Xaver Schnitzer (1740-1785) who was the organist of the Ottobeuren basilica, inaugurated the organ when it was built, and specifically composed for it.
With red currant cheesecake—freshly made and if not made by one of the two grandmotherly middle-aged ladies behind the bakery’s counter, then surely by one that looked and talked just like them—taken in as the necessary nourishment for the upcoming organ hours, I ascended the stairs to the basilica and took, with sure but sadly misguided instinct, a place vis-à-vis the wrong organ. Excusable, perhaps, seeing how on the outside the smaller Holy Ghost Organ (37 ranks / 27 stops and two manuals) looks almost identical to its bigger sibling, the Trinity Organ (74 ranks, 49 stops, 4 manuals).
The young Freiburg student Johannes Lang went first with the Toccata octava by Georg Muffat (1653-1704), for which he chose a dark, musty, yet clear and plain, unexpectedly melancholic registration, even as the high voices of the Toccata have fairly gay material to cherish. His Franz Xaver Schnitzer Andantino from the Sonata no.2 sounded similar, a bit forward leaning, clumsy even, but clearer, less awash in the Allegro assai. The Fugue à 5, Duo, and Dialogue sur les grands jeux from "Veni creator" by Nicolas de Grigny (1672-1703) was required of everyone. Nasal and precise the Fugue, a bit gawky in the Duo, and at last with some grandiosity for the Dialogue, with the pushed to its reluctant maximum and easily drowning out the chainsaw outside that had been cutting down trees at an incompatible pitch.
Dominik Bernhard’s Toccata dudecima & ultima (Muffat) was comparatively gleaming, with large swaths of shimmering, yet beautifully soft sound, though throughout a second winner in the unofficial contest with that chainsaw. Schnitzer (Minuetto & Presto from the Sonata no.5 in B-flat) was lively muted, light and sparkly. The Grigny Fugue more deliberate than Lang’s perhaps, but with excellent rigor against which the ears can lean. During the Dialogue he taxed the instrument’s droning low register to a point where the organ only just approximated the right pitch.
Anna-Victoria Baltrusch (*1980), more buttoned-down than actually young, already looks the part of the protestant church organist… but where she has a humor- and spunk-deficit, she offers impeccability and properness. Two qualities not to be underestimated for organ playing. Apparently. A grand, ‘Bachian’ registration in the Toccata octava sounded glorious, although not half as haunting as the damp browns and soft black that Lang had chosen. Instead everything was clearer and more audible. She also chose a brighter approach for the Schnitzer Andante and Presto (from the Sonata no.4 in D) which my organ-naïve ears preferred here, rather than in the Muffat. De Grigny opened lean, bright, reedy and not as notably fugal. The noon bells rang through the summer day before the Dialogue proceeded.
Angela Metzger, still a favorite for her Toccata interpretation, jumped into the Muffat Toccata duodecima et ultima, without pomp nor undue hesitation and ultimately a little pale. Schnitzer’s Andante und Presto (Sonata no.4 again) was clad in muted colors, fast, and bright; pleasantly mechanical in its regularity. An unobtrusive fugue, a pleasantly chatty duo, and a dense, rather than just loud Dialogue (avoiding the ill tuned pipes) in De Grigny concluded the first batch of organists in Ottobeuren after which it was time to go back to Munich to catch a bit of the Trumpet semi final and the oboe final.
It’s quite impossible to judge on the merit of a candidate advancing over another when one has not heard all of them in the preceding round. So I was merely surprised not to find mine and my colleague’s favorite trumpet of the second round (Simon Höfele) in the semi final at the ugly Carl-Orff-Saal of the Gasteig. I’m sure I will hear him again, somewhere. First-to-perform Miroslav Petkov (Bulgaria) struggled through the Haydn Concerto in E-flat (on a B-flat trumpet) with a trying tone even where he was perfectly secure. Choppy and not particularly musical, with orchestra and soloist rarely forming a meaningful union. On the upside, he turned in a performance of French-German Darmstadt-school composer Mark Andre’s “iv6b” for solo trumpet that, in its passive aggressive way, did the work more justice than the other two I heard; Fabian Neuhaus’, and Ferenc Mausz’. A work that veers between pppppp and pp (at its loudest), with an occasional fppp and fpp accent. Petkov took the work to its extremes, which if you have a work written against one’s own instrument in front of you, you might as well do. I would have liked to read along, but turning the pages of the score would literally have been louder than the performance.
With a full page of performance-instructions, it offers all kinds of different ways of blowing at or into the trumpet, tut-tutting helicopter-style (“taps”), and tone ‘corridors’ in which the player is to retrace relative microtonal variations. Much of it looks just like a composer trying to show his performer that he is familiar with the trumpet and its technique… only that the whole thing sounds decidedly anti-trumpet. I couldn’t find much in it that appealed musically, but with the aggressive silence it made a point I cherished… and it made that point only in the superbly over-the-top Petkov interpretation. Neuhaus and Mausz attempted to actually play the work by, among other things, bringing up the entire dynamic level. It was more audible but took away the joy of the extreme, which is pretty much all the work has got. The colleague next to me, less amused about even the aspect of the extreme, shook his head, grunted “idiotic, that’s so super-yester-year avant-gardish” and wrote a brilliant snarky article about it. Fabian Neuhaus’ Hummel Concerto in D-major—initially a more pleasing concerto than the Haydn, but not nearly holding up as well—was played with few mistakes and more energy than Petkov had given Haydn, a fine but indistinct performance. Ference Mausz—with Haydn again—was in a different league than those two; his confident tone of the Böhme Concerto (Round 2) present again, as was his well rounded tone with a tendency toward the ungainly only at high volume. Not surprising that of those three, Mausz made it into the final, along with Alexandre Baty and Manuel Blanco Gómez-Limón. The Munich Chamber Orchestra, the usual highlight of these semi finals, performed well under concert master Esther Hoppe, but not quite with the enthusiasm I remember from the last three years.
The Oboe final in the Herkulessaal was too far away not to miss the first competitor, Ivan Podyomov, but then there seemed unanimity among everyone I spoke to that his Strauss Oboe Concerto was nothing I needed regret having missed; “on the music, not in the music” was the kindest verdict. Christina Gómez Godoy is a pint-sized oboist member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and her Strauss was immediately, very appealing: Mellifluous, plaintive, with more than a hint of the wistfulness of the old graying Strauss in the music. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Sebastian Tewinkel turned in three superb performances, a very happy surprise after their often lackluster showings in previous years. They were already good in playing truly with Mlle. Gómez Godoy, but in accompanying Philippe Tondre (France) and his Marigaux M2 “Alfred”, they coaxed yet more out of old Strauss. The latter bested Mlle. Gómez Godoy with his self-evident naturalness, dignity, perkier tone, his very powerful softness that brimmed with contained force. It wasn’t lovely-lachrymose as Gómez Godoy’s tone, who was my emotional favorite in this finale, but seemingly on track to a first prize and successful in securing the Audience Prize. Certainly Marc Lachat’s neutral, beautiful but uninvolved performance didn’t seem to argue strongly for getting that prize, and while he was lyrical in the Andante, it wasn’t as sensitive or cantabile as the others, marred by great nervousness. The final alone would not have suggested the jury’s result bringing in Podyomov and Philippe Tondre at second, and Cristina Gómez Godoy and Marc Lachat at 3rd. Part of the result might be explained if the jury felt awkward giving Podyomov, who had come second in the 2007 ARD Competition, a lesser prize now, four years onward.