The German organist, pianist and conductor Leo Krämer (born 1944) is one of those rare musicians who are carriers of the old performing tradition that began as far back as the 17th century. One of the outstanding features of Leo Krämer’s outstanding organ playing is his improvisation. This tradition has now been all but consigned to the past and lost its significance. Krämer is one of few musicians who continue to develop this area of the performing arts. At his concerts, audiences can almost always expect to hear improvisations to various themes – as rule taken from symphonies, operas and overtures by Haydn Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Mendelssohn.
The organ is the instrument that Bach, like Handel, had mastered to absolute perfection. In terms of its expressive possibilities it often took the place of the orchestra, clavier and even the chorus at the same time. Organ versions of Protestant chorales were one of the composer’s favourite genres. Bach composed a total of more than one hundred and fifty versions of choral works. Most of them are included in several volumes compiled by the composer himself. In his early works, Bach was still following the style formed by his predecessors – Böhm, Reinken, Pachelbel and Buxtehude. Various techniques of figure and “lighting up” the melody are typical for such works. Later arrangements are abundant in imitation development, in particular canonical development, through various techniques of contrast polyphony. Often his chorales make use of the obbligato pedal. Many contemporaries noted Bach’s peerless brilliance in its use, when he would “perform entire melodies with his feet, which other organists would be unable to play using every finger on both their hands” (Johann Forkel).
Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Art of the Fugue was the last and one of the most complex and significant works by the maestro (1749–1750). The composer did not live to complete the final fugue of the cycle. In 1752, after Bach’s death, the cycle was published by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel.
Bach completed the score of the cycle, but he did not indicate for which instrument – or group of instruments – it was intended; and so it is most frequently performed either on the piano or the organ, although there are also orchestral versions. Having made it his task to establish a unique academy of counterpoint, Bach named all of his fugues “counterpoints”, thus underlining the integral unity of the entire cycle.
The Art of the Fugue is a deeply considered and logically structured work. The fugues follow one after the other according to the principle of ascending from the simple to the complex. Counterpoint No 18, which completes this grandiose cycle, is an unfinished fugue to four themes in which Bach’s counterpoint brilliance reaches its zenith. But at this peak, the music … breaks off. Thus the performer is always faced with the question of either completing the composition of the fugue himself or of stopping on the final note written by Bach.
Mendelssohn’s artistic legacy is immense. He composed five symphonies, six overtures, two piano concerti, the famous violin concerto, Songs without Words, Serious Variations and three oratorios (the last one unfinished) – these being, of course, only the most significant works. For the organ, Mendelssohn composed preludes and fugues, the most well-known of which are the Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37, and Six Organ Sonatas, Op. 65. Mendelssohn performed as an organist on a regular basis and his first works for the instrument were written when the composer was but twelve years old. In this field of his work, Mendelssohn referred, first and foremost, to the traditions of Bach, to whose music the young Mendelssohn had been introduced by his composition tutor Carl Zelter.