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.
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.