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Jacques Van Oortmerssen

by
11 March 2016

Kenneth Shenton writes:

A PIONEERING spirit in the application of historically informed performances, Jacques van Oortmerssen, who died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage on 21 November, aged 65, was widely regarded as one of the finest organists of his generation. He was a big man in name, nature, and stature, whose eminence as a performer was more than matched by his distinction as an organ designer, scholar, composer and teacher.

Born in Rotterdam, he joined the Rotterdam Muziekschool, aged ten, before moving up to the Rotterdam Conservatory, where he was taught the organ by André Verwoerd and the piano by Elly Salomé. After graduation, he continued his organ studies in Paris with Marie-Claire Alain, being awarded the Prix d’Excellence in 1976. The following year, he won the first prize at the National Improvisation Competition in Bolsward.

As a performer, keen to restore the organ to the mainstream of contemporary music-making, van Oortmerssen revelled in the unique opportunities afforded by the instrument. His style was fiery and impassioned, his sense of rhythm was more than matched by a love of colour, and his work was underpinned by a splendidly natural technique. Effortlessly building an enviable reputation for musical insight and selfless integrity, he successfully maintained a non-stop global career as top-flight concert artist.

He was a much sought-after teacher, and his influence has been immense. In 1979, he was appointed Professor of Organ at the Sweelinck Conservatorium in Amsterdam, a post he held until his death. Also Visiting Professor at the University of Goteborg, he fulfilled a similar function at the He was appointed Betts Fellow in Organ Studies at the University of Oxford in 1993, and for some years also taught at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

Having succeeded Gustav Leonhardt as Organiste Titulaire of the Waalse Kerk in Amsterdam in 1982, van Oortmerrsen later had the welcome opportunity to update and refine the church’s historic organ. Dating from 1734, and originally installed by Christian Müller, this two-manual, 26-stop instrument provided a particularly colourful palette for its talented custodian. The refurbishment was carried out by the distinguished Dutch organ builder Henk van Eeken.

Both men would go on to collaborate on a range of projects from Amsterdam’s Wallonian Church to the Meiji University in Tokyo. No less impressive were van Oortmerrsen’s designs for instruments in Tarragona and Trondheim. At Cornell University, in 2003, his concept paid particular homage to the renowned Schnitger organ, once housed in the Charlottenberg Palace in Berlin, before it was destroyed by the Allies during the Second World War.

A regular and welcome visitor to this country throughout his career, van Oortmerrsen made his debut at the Proms in 1993. The following year, his recital on the Flentrop Organ of Dunblane Cathedral formed the centrepiece of the Congress of the Incorporated Association of Organists. Since then, his presence has been welcomed everywhere from Oundle International Organ Week to the John Loosemore Centre in Devon.

As a writer, he was precise, literate, and stylish. Having contributed a wealth of finely written and knowledgeable reviews to a wide range of specialist periodicals, he proved to be a consummate chronicler of the organ’s rich history and development. On a more expansive canvas, in 2002, he distilled his extensive knowledge and experience into what has become a standard text, Organ Technique. He had also published a concise Guide to Duo and Trio Playing.

A fastidious, though never a prolific, composer, van Oortmerssen has left, besides several thoughtful transcriptions, original works for the instrument. Hinting at a larger personality than was usual is the challenging Fata Morgana, dating from 1991. Four years later came an imaginatively detailed set of Five Chorale Preludes. Each is cleverly and precisely imagined, its structure handled with fluency and care.

Happily, many of his solo recitals endure, thanks to an extensive and eclectic discography. While equally alert to the charms of C. P. E. Bach, or the thrills of Brahms, from 1994 onwards, using many of Europe’s finest historic instruments, he added the complete organ works of J. S. Bach to his catalogue. No less impressive was his championing of the merits of the 19th-century Flemish composer Jacques-Nicolas Lemmens.

He was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, and the sheer breadth of his industry brought not only greater recognition for the instrument itself, but also proved pivotal in inspiring countless generations of performers. Yet, while his supreme gifts undoubtedly gave his music an unforgettable quality, it was his natural goodness that shone through, to bring such added distinction to a most remarkable life.

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