Musical Surprises in Transylvania

RomaniaRomania Franck, Bach: Eckart Schlandt (organ), Black Church, Brașov, Romania, 16.07.2015 (RP)


Franck: Pastorale, FWV 31, Op.19
Bach: “Wo soll ich fliehen hin,” BWV 691
“Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten,” BWV 691a
“Ach bleib bei uns, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 649
“Kommst du nun, Jesu, vom Himmel herunter auf Erden,” BWV 650
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532


A hot sunny July day spent in the central Romanian city of Brașov, nestled in the Southern Carpathian Mountains, was full of unexpected musical offerings. Human settlement in the region goes back to 100 BC; its modern history dates from the 12th century when Transylvanian Saxons arrived. Established by the Teutonic Knights in 1211, Brașov today, with a population of 250,000, is a city abuzz with tourists enjoying its diverse architectural and natural beauties, as well as a vibrant cultural scene.

On this particular afternoon it wasn’t chant but rather choral music that one heard coming from the Romanian Orthodox Cathedral in the center of Brașov’s Old Town. Competed in 1896, the small, high-domed, Byzantine-style cathedral is awash in gold and decorated with rich, dark-colored frescoes and icons. Three chamber choirs from France, Serbia and the host city were presenting a short concert as part of the Transilvania Cor Fest, held in Brașov from July 13-18. Standing in the cool courtyard full of lush flowering plants and flickering votive candles was a delight for the senses. There was no printed program, and I recognized none of the pieces, which freed me to simply enjoy the sounds drifting out from the church.

As I crossed the broad town square, lined with colorful facades and open-air restaurants, to the Black Church, a rock band performed sound checks for an upcoming concert. The Black Church (Schwarze Kirche in German or Biserica Neagră in Romanian) is purported to be the largest Gothic church between Vienna and Istanbul. Erected from 1385 to 1477, it has withstood Mongol invasions and Turkish raids. The church also survived a fire in 1689 that destroyed most of Brașov, blacking its walls and providing its name. Stark German Lutheran esthetics prevail in the interior, interrupted by the bright colors of 119 Anatolian carpets donated by German merchants in the 17th and 18th centuries. The carpets, which hang from the walls, balconies and pews, were offerings made by the traders for having survived forays into the barbaric lands to the south and east of the Carpathians.

High above in the narthex of the church is a cream and gold Gothic-style organ case which houses a musical treasure. Carl August Buchholz (1796 – 1884) was a major Berlin organ builder. The Black Church’s instrument, the largest of the 150 produced by his family firm, consists of a four-manual console, 63 ranks and 3993 pipes. The mechanical organ is also in a remarkable state of preservation, having survived without any major changes since its installation in 1839. Regular organ recitals were inaugurated in 1953, a tradition which Eckart Schlandt, the church’s titular organist, continues to this day.

The concert opened with César Franck’s Pastorale. Schlandt explored the softer, more subtle colors of the organ in its opening and closing sections; the scherzo-like middle section showcased the reeds, which are truly one of the organ’s glories. The rest of the recital was devoted to Bach. The four chorale preludes were dispatched with the anticipated accuracy and authority. The second, “Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten,” gave me the most pleasure, again owing to the organ’s fine reeds. Schlandt appeared to be thrown off by the blaring sounds (okay, music) that blasted through the church from the nearby sound check during the third of the chorale preludes. Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major was the final work, and with the sound check concluded, Schlandt and those assembled were able to give it their full attention. The prelude’s dramatic flourishes were expertly performed. In the fugue, Schlandt deftly executed the fiendish pedal passages, as well the brilliant flashes of sound and dramatic pauses that punctuate it.

Although the instrument has aspects of a Romantic organ, it is basically Baroque in character. Chiff, the initial sound made by air leaving the organ pipe, was clearly audible. By today’s standards, the amount of time it took Schlandt to change registrations manually was interminable and the process clearly audible. We’re accustomed to hearing the Bach Prelude and Fugue on larger, modern instruments, and the exclamations from the pedal did not thunder out as they so often do. But given the organ’s pristine state, the sound was undoubtedly much more in keeping with what 17th and 18th century audiences experienced.

As I returned from dinner later that evening, the streets and outdoor restaurants were full of people enjoying the warm weather. The rock concert in the town square was winding down. As with the choral offerings earlier in the day, I had no idea of what was being performed. The audience punched their fists in the air and sang along to a Romanian pop song. The blond, somewhat ragged-looking lead singer wore a sleeveless shirt emblazoned with a sparkling US Confederate flag. An incongruous and totally unexpected sight in Central Romania, but just part and parcel of a colorful, musically rich day spent in Brașov.

Rick Perdian


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