Review by Oakland March 28, 2009 (4 of 4 found this review helpful)
|Even though I am an enthusiastic fan of full range classical pipe organ and own a sizable number of organ recordings, listen to organ music live 5 or 6 times a year, I understand completely that it's a niche within a niche of classical music and that much of it, even to me, can fall flat. But not this disc. There is not an uninspired piece among of the 22 on this disc of 75 minutes. Sibelius was clearly at a creative zenith with short form organ composition.
And short form is probably an apt description of these works. The average length is under 4 minutes.They are largely monumental many of which seemed composed for specific occasions. They are not especially exploratory. They get right to the point. While these are certainly high quality compositions there is no sustained attempt to explore the inner sanctum of the music or the instrumentwithin individual compositions. To my delight much of the music is unfettered and high octane.
So what do you get? You get extremely high quality pipe organ *music* (no merry-go-round or carnival sounds here), virtuoso musicianship and an equally high quality recording. You get a spectrum of music that is as varied as one can reasonably hope to find on a single disc ranging from soft pastoral passages to sustained passages played fortissimo. You get some of the deepest, most powerful, most “life like” organ sounds and feel that you can reasonably expect aside from being at the recital itself. At times you get that low end “grunt” that can be down right wicked, giving you that “holy moly” sensation. But it is never overwhelming and never out of proportion to the rest of the music spectrum. Sibelius does not miss an opportunity to slip in a loud low one, but always when it is appropriate and always without impeaching high standards of musicality. This is worth emphasizing. While this is music that has its share of virtuoso pyrotechnics this is high quality music first and foremost. Collectively, these compositions give the listener an insightful preview and introduction to the boundless tapestry of colors and emotions and power the organ is capable of expressing with a high level of invention.
While I found all the compositions to be high quality, enjoyable, and worthy of repeated listens (I've listened to the entire SACD about 6 times and have never had the desire to cherry pick among the 22 selections, for sure, some show more inspiration than others but they are all good. My favorites for their combination of power and color are “Intrada” ( most monumental and powerful and at just over 6 minutes the longest and most developed),“Mournful Music”, “Hymn”, “Lied” (exceptionally colorful and powerful), “Marche Funebre” (both versions), and Musette (exceptionally colorful and fun filled).
So, that's what you get. But what *don't* you get with this disc?
I heard little (almost none that I could detect) of the Sibelius that I am most familiar with (primarily through Symphonies 1 to 5, tone poems, violin concerto, etc.). Although, admittedly, I am not a learned Sibelian. Those more experienced with Sibelius' music may “hear” him quite clearly. (If anything I thought I heard a bit of Elgar!) For sure, there aren't the sweeping flourishes of pure melody and melodic subtleties that I find to be a defining hallmark of Sibelius' music. You get only teasing glimpses of the penetrating and exquisite “delicacy” often found in Sibelius' music. Perhaps, the short form aspects of these compositions don't permit that level of expressive detail. The liner notes suggest that “Intrada” op111a invokes the 7th Symphony and that another draws from the 8th Symphony which never saw the light of day. Perhaps so, I have not heard the 7th Symphony in many years and any resemblance to the 8th is probably conjecture. (I have the Ashkenazy 6 and 7 on Exton but I have yet to listened to it). But these are in no way junior varsity works, but are instead the product of an undeniably mature composer. And most importantly an “understanding” of Sibelius or even a love of his orchestral works is not a prerequisite to full enjoyment of these organ works.
So while this collection of works gives you an impressive “sampling” of colors and textures there is not the comprehensive “array” and kaleidoscope of colors, and tapestry, and degree of contrasts heard in more long form organ works from the likes of Bach, Widor, Franck, de Maleingreau, etc. And I wonder “what could have been” if Sibelius had focused his creative powers to longer form organ compositions, organ/choral compositions, and organ/orchestral compositions during his decades period of silence.
The deep organ chords of the Sibelius disc are powerful and near seismic, to be sure, almost to maximum challenge. But they are not *sustained* and therefore, do not represent as formidable a challenge to an audio system as can be found in some other organ works, especially long form. For example, the Poulenc Organ Concerto (on tap at the San Francisco Symphony next month) has a faintly audible 22 hz note sustained for more than a full continuous minute. And while that might represent an extreme case in music even low end passages with much considerably less endurance can be like a riptide (you don't realize its there) that can pull your system under without due warning, especially underpowered tube amplifiers.
None of this is criticism in the least. It simply contrasts these works with some high quality long form organ works.
I love the sound, feel, and aura of the pipe organ used for this recording, the Walcker organ at Winterthur Stadtkirche in Switzerland. The throaty mid range is especially notable and compelling. The low end certainly holds its own and the versatility is showcased in the wide range of duty that is demanded by the 22 compositions featured here. The “shortcoming”, if you can call it that (certainly personal taste), is the venue. I prefer the reverberation/ambiance of what *seems* to be the much larger venue of St. Sulpice in Paris. This could be a microphone placement choice and/or the venue could be significantly smaller and the recording places the organ “upfront”. Listen to this Sibelius SACD as well as JAV Recordings SACDs recorded of Widor's Mass Op36 (www.sa-cd.net/showreviews/3509#3402) and Dupre's “Complete Stations of the Cross” (www.sa-cd.net/showreviews/3508#3810) and the spatial differences will be clear.
Venue aside, this is a top tier recording, in both two channel and multi-channel. Of course, you have the opportunity for full potential with multi-channel. Those listening with multi-channel should understand that this is an all-hands-on-deck recording. The center channel and the surrounds are asked throughout to do heavy lifting. Note, too, that this is a 5.0 (not 5.1) recording. I *think* (not sure) this means that a subwoofer will not be useful. Finally, unlike many well mastered wide ranging SACDs where I recommend to turn the volume up relative to more dynamically limited CDs, the Sibelius “Complete Organ Works” is different. It is recorded at a higher level than many and you should start with lower volume and turn it up only after you know what you are dealing with.
I find the Sibelius “Complete Organ Works” SACD to easily rate 5 stars for both recording and performance and to be fully and easily worth the price of admission ($34 including shipping and great service ordered direct from FUGA in Finland to the United States. I emailed Fuga directly at:
My recommendation is without reservation for Sibelius devotees, pipe organ lovers as well as to anyone interested in an impressive introduction to superbly recorded virtuoso organ performances.
Robert C. Lang
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