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Hans Helmut Tillmanns (Organ)

Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 1


J.S. Bach: Organ Works, Vol. 3

Prelude & Fugue in E minor ("Cathedral"), BWV 533 [1:59, 2:22]
Fantasia & Fugue in G minor ("Great"), BWV 542 [6:11, 6:20]
Pièce d'orgue (Fantasia) in G major, BWV 572 [8:52]
Chorale Prelude An Wasserflüssen Babylon (I), BWV 653 [5:11]
Chorale Prelude Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr (III), BWV 663 [7:23]
Chorale Partita Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, BWV 768 [20:41]

Hans Helmut Tillmanns (Organ) [Weimbs organ]

Danacord 557

May 2001

CD / TT: 58:59

Recorded at the of St. Nicholas church, Kall, Germany.

Donald Satz wrote (October 28, 2001):
I have had the good fortune to acquire the eight discs that organist Hans Helmut Tillmanns has recorded for Danacord. Three of the eight are devoted to Bach works; the others are strongly in the baroque camp with some 19th century organ music interspersed.

It isn't my usual regimen to buy as many as eight discs at one time, but that's how I was able to avoid shipping costs from the Danacord web site. That Tillmanns has eight recordings for Danacord is just a nice coincidence.

Part I will actually cover the most recent Tillmanns disc which is Bach all the way with a mixed selection of his organ works. I felt that I would gain the most insight by starting with this program: see above.

Hans Helmut Tillmans, although not having a major international reputation, has more than thirty recordings to his credit. The teacher who reportedly impacted him the most was Helmut Walcha. For this recording, Tillmans plays an organ built by the Weimbs Company in 1998. Although a new instrument, the liner notes dwell on the premise than this Weimbs organ is an 'historically aware' one (my words).

Overall, I have significant reservations about the performances and the sound engineering, although the Tillmanns disc also has much to offer.Tillmanns, with the exception of BWV 572, displays a penchant to stay away from the strong and public performance in favor of an intimate approach which sometimes lessens enjoyment. Two examples well show this problem. In the Partita BWV 768, Tillmanns destroys all semblance of contrast in the middle variations by treating the fifth and sixth variations more intimately than in any other version. For BWV 533, Tillmanns offers none of the brashness and fresh attitude of the work.

Sound is a big problem in the Fugue of BWV 542. The tendency of the upper voices, throughout the disc, to be on the bright side comes to center-stage. It's quite unappealing and combines with a poorly defined bass which sounds like it's in a different soundstage.

The good things are striking. Tillmann's two chorale performances benefit greatly from his musical personality, and his Fantasia in G major is exceptional for its beauty and power. Some sections of the Partita BWV 768 such as the 1st and 10th variations are the best I've heard.

As is my usual regimen, I started with the two chorales, both of which are pieces from the Leipzig Chorales. BWV 663 is a comforting and uplifting chorale arrangement with the chorale melody/cantus firmus in the tenor voice. The music is blessed with many excellent recordings. For performances of an average tempo between six and seven minutes, Bine Katrine Bryndorf on Hanssler and Christopher Herrick on Hyperion are hard to beat. Bryndorf is the most uplifting with a vitality that leaps out the speakers; Herrick delivers a smoother flow which is very appealing. Peter Hurford on Decca takes over seven minutes and gives a thoroughly comforting reading. If your taste runs toward the faster side, Peter Sykes on Raven adds an irresistable urgency to the music.

Tillmanns offers the slowest reading of BWV 663 I listened to. It doesn't drag at all and is as enjoyable as Hurford's performance. There is one little reservation; although the middle and upper voices ring out very clearly, the lower voices are not clear and actually sound a little murky. This isn't a major consideration for most Bach chorales, but it could be damaging in Bach's more powerful works. Overall, Tillmanns rates highly in BWV 663, but I do favor the Bryndorf interpretation which is loaded with

BWV 653 - Again, Tillmanns gives a gorgeous and intimate performance. Albert Schweitzer on Pearl offers a six minute reading of great dignity; Tillmanns is in the five minute range. However, he hardly sounds slower than Schweitzer due to his more 'private' interpretation.

Concerning the two above chorales, Tillmanns gets my strong approval. The organ has a lovely sound, and the intimate nature of the performances works beautifully for these two pieces.

Fantasia & Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 - A power-packed Fantasia with two passages of sublime repose that creates such a great contrast within the music's fabric; the Fugue has a 'destination' as it exuberantly barrels down the road. My favorite version comes from Karl Richter on Deutsche Grammophon; no other interpretation provides such stunning contrasts in the Fantasia, and his Fugue is as exuberant and dedicated to resolution as any other performance. Lately, I've also been enjoying Gabor Lehotka on Laslerlight/Classical Evolution. This performance isn't quite in Richter's league, but the brash style in the Fantasia and the sweet/rustic sound of the 'unknown organ' are irresitable.

Tillmann's Fantasia is loaded with power and a fine supply of angularity; he creates greater momentum and excitement in the opening minutes than Richter. However, Tillmann's moments of repose do not possess the magic of Richter's. More damaging to Tillmann's BWV 542 is his very weak Fugue; Tillmanns plays it in a relatively demure and polite fashion as if the performance was a private one. Some may like this approach, but I feel it greatly lessens the music's impact and exuberance. Even if I did like the performance, the sound is not good. The upper voices are too bright; much
worse, the boomy and murky bass sounds like it's ten miles away from the upper voices. It's an unusual mess with poor balance at its core which ruins the performance of the Fugue from the start.

The Fantasia in G major, BWV 572 is also titled "Piece de Orgue". Tillmanns surprises me with a powerful performance which is a great alternative to exceptional versions from Gustav Leonhardt and Harald Vogel. Leonhardt is quite stern, Vogel streches the music horizontally, and Tillmanns stretches upward. He doesn't scrimp this time on providing the organ's full majesty.

Prelude & Fugue in E minor, BWV 533 - This is a short work that Bach composed during his time at Arnstadt. The music is playful, sharp, and brash - Gerhard Weinberger on CPO and Wolfgang Rübsam on Naxos give excellent readings. Weinberger is the epitome of angularity, and Rubsam's performance is more varied and interesting than any other I know. This is not prime-time for Tillmanns; smooth and benign, the qualities of youth and bite are in low supply. In terms of interest, Tillman's registrations are routine and no match for Rubsam.

Partita BWV 768 - One of Bach's most substantial organ works, the composition consists of an inital subject followed by eleven variations. The music is entirely intimate until the fifth variation which injects urgency and some muscle. For me, the heart of the work comes from the last two variations which are highly heroic and uplifting.

Simon Preston's version on Deutsche Grammophon is hard to beat. He excellently contrasts the variations among one another, bringing out all the intimacy, poignancy, and ceremony of the work. Tillmanns performs exceptionally through the first four variations; his intimate treatment is gorgeous and well suited to the music. Unfortunately, he decides to use like approach to the fifth and sixth variations as well. In addition to my view that those variations are best served by a much stronger and public interpretation, Tillmanns goes without the contrast thatthey provide at the mid-point of the work. As a result, Tillmanns just seems to drone on in a one-dimensional manner. He does recapture the work with a stunning and uplifting 10th variation.

Don's Conclusions: At best, I can only give this Tillmanns disc a qualified recommendation. Of the six works performed, two are not competitive or particularly enjoyable. A third, the Partita, has major problems toward the middle of the work. Since these three works constitute most of of the disc's music, reservations are heightened. To add further to the reservations, disc time is rather short. However, those readers who have a strong preference for maximizing the intimate nature of Bach's music would likely have greater affection for the disc than I do.

In Part 2, I'll cover Tillmann's disc devoted to Bach organ chorales. The picture I currently hold of Tillmanns leads me to anticipate a more rewarding set of performances than offered in this mixed recital. Stay tuned.


Feedback to the Review

Kirk McElhearn wrote (October 28, 2001):
I recently reviewed this disc as well - sorry I didn't post my review here before. I find we come to similar conclusions; here's my take.

This selection of Bach’s organ works, played on an excellent-sounding modern organ, features a variety of works, including the great Partita BWV 768, Sei grüßet, Jesu gütig. This is Hans Helmut Tillmann’s third recording of Bach’s works for Danacord.

The organ has an excellent sound, although, being in a modern church, lacks the resonance of older, more spacious churches. This is less perceptible in the chorale preludes, such as BWV 653, which is a slow, mellow meditation, than it is in the more massive, expressive pieces, such as the intense beginning of the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV. The musical lines come through very clearly, but the familiar timbre of powerful organs in huge churches is missing.

Tillmanns has made an interesting selection of works - culminating with the great Partita BWV 768, Sei grüßet, Jesu gütig, he builds up to it with a series of fantasies, preludes and fugues and choral preludes. The Fugue of the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV 542, starting in the highest registers of the organ, rings out beautifully with the registration chosen here, although the lower pedal notes do not have the energy and force to provide the right counterpoint. They sound distant, as if in a different space, and make this piece sound a bit unstructured. Nevertheless, the light touch used in this fugue is very attractive.

The two choral preludes chosen here, such as Chorale Prelude BWV 663, Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr, are among the more mellow preludes, and these do, indeed, work well on this organ. But the high point is certainly the Partita BWV 768, Sei grüßet, Jesu gütig. Partita, here, is not a suite, as in the harpsichord partitas, but rather a series of variations, eleven in all. This is Bach’s longest organ work - here almost 21 minutes. Tillmanns plays this work well, and each variation takes on its own atmosphere, as the music builds up to the final climax. While, at times, the playing is a bit restrained, the overall tone of this piece is beautiful, with the different variations played in such a way that their lines are very clearly heard. The registrations chosen are, for the most part, muted and mellow, but, as the piece winds on, this builds up to a much more energetic sound. The progression of tone and volume throughout the piece is very appropriate.

This is a very good recording of a selection of Bach’s organ works, with the Partita BWV 768, Sei grüßet, Jesu gütig being the culmination of the disc. While the organ’s sound is not exceptional, Tillmanns plays works that fit well with it. This is an organ disc for those who do not like loud, thunderous organ recordings.


Hans Helmut Tillmanns: Short Biography | Recordings of Instrumental Works
Reviews of Instrumental Recordings:
Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 1 | Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 2 | Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 3 | Hans Helmut Tillmanns on Danacord - Part 4

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