The Great Organ of Aarhus Cathedral
Kristian Krogsøe (organ, CD1), Anders Johnsson (organ, CD2)
rec. 2022/23 Aarhus Cathedral, Aarhus, Denmark
Danacord DACOCD971-72 [2 CDs: 149]
The raison d’être of this release is a celebration of the recent restoration of the organ in Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark. This is brilliantly achieved through text, photographs and two recitals. The packaging includes a sumptuous 70-page hardback book, which tells the story of the restoration. There are descriptive notes for all the pieces, resumes of the two performers, and naturally the organ specification. The instrument, the largest in the country, has ninety-six speaking stops. Its history ranges over four centuries. The Danish company Marcussen & Søn Orgelbyggeri did the most recent rebuild and restoration in 2018-2020.
Kristian Krogsøe, the organist of Aarhus Cathedral, is also a guest professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen. He presents the first recital.
The performance gets off to a splendid start with British composer Percy Whitlock’s Fanfare, the last of his Four Extemporisations. It is in ternary form. The exuberant opening and closing sections characterised by rhythmical energy bookend a quiet, reflective passage with hints of Delius. The recording is a showcase for the organ’s powerful Tuba Mirabilis.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partite diverse sopra “Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig was written over a number of years, beginning around 1705. Bach was still developing it when he was at Weimar in 1707-1717. The partita is based on the “given” choral melody played, incidentally, on the original 18th century façade pipes. There follow eleven variations which allow for considerable exploration of the organ’s timbres. It is a masterclass in the art of variation.
It is my first encounter with French composer Jean-Baptiste Robin, via his Regard vers l’Air (Looking towards the Aïr). The liner notes say that this is a “homage to the Aïr Mountains in Niger”. It is hard going, never mind the booklet’s suggestion that the piece depicts “various soundscapes and elements [that] blend together in an imaginative whole”. To be fair, Robin uses a vast range of the “colours of the organ” in the exposition of his tribute. The texture and dynamics range from “light arabesques” to “massive tuttis”. The piece may be just a little too eclectic for its own good.
Marcel Dupré’s Symphonie-Passion is my highlight of the recital. It began life at a 1921 concert at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia. Members of the audience handed Dupré the themes. He immediately began to improvise a four-movement structure which followed the life of Christ: The world awaiting the Saviour, Nativity, Crucifixion and Resurrection. When Dupré returned to France, he began to write up the work based on his recall of the concert. The restless opening section, with a hint of anticipation, is followed by the Christmas story, imagining cribs and wise men. This is gentle and pensive. The Crucifixion is doom-laden with angular harmonies and plodding pedals. It comes as no surprise that the finale, Resurrection, is a full-blown Toccata in the finest French Manner.
The second recitalist, Anders Johnsson, is currently organist at St Andrew’s Church in Malmö, Sweden. He is also associate professor in organ playing at the Malmö Academy of Music.
Dietrich Buxtehude’s Magnificat primi toni is based on a Gregorian Magnificat melody. “Primi toni” means that it is set in the Dorian mode, white notes on D. The resulting piece is a combination of eight sections, some improvisatory or fantasia-like and others fugal. It ends with a virtuosic finale.
American organist, composer and professor Searle Wright’s Lyric Rhapsody pushes the stylistic boundaries. Every so often it is ethereal, then climactic. Does it nod to film music, jazz or modernism? The soloist has many opportunities to exploit various solo stops and colourful combinations.
Beethoven wrote no major works for the organ other than apparently a few fugal exercises. The Suite für eine Spieluhr was originally devised for a large “self-playing” organ in Vienna. Andre Isoir has realised the three movements for a normal organ. These miniatures sound well here, with imaginative registrations.
César Franck’s Deuxième choral in B minor opens with a short passacaglia which builds up from the opening pedal notes, before embarking on an involved exploration of moods and emotions. There are interludes, fugal passages and a “fantastical recitative” for full organ. The overall impression is gloom or deep introspection. Positive moods do occur as the work progresses, and there are some stupendous climaxes. Yet, it is the serenity of the conclusion that captures the imagination.
If I were to declare what I considered the ultimate piece of pure or absolute music, it would have to be Bach’s Chaconne in D minor, from the Partita II for violin solo. Many years ago, when I first heard it in Busoni’s renowned transcription for piano solo, I was seriously impressed. There have been arrangements for many combinations of instruments, including Stokowski’s for full orchestra. This version for organ is due to Ulisse Matthey, onetime organist, and professor of music in Milan. This is a successful transcription in every way. It preserves the “spiritually powerful, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect” nature of the original.
Léon Boëllmann may be best recalled for his 1895 Suite Gothique with its uplifting Toccata. But he wrote concertos, a symphony, chamber works and piano music. His Ronde française was first written for piano (or cello and piano?). Gaston Choisnel arranged it for organ. This charming modal work never strays from the white notes on the keyboard and pedals.
Anders Johnsson concludes his recital with Louis Vierne’s three wonderful pieces from two books of Pièces de Fantasie. Naïades, justly regarded for its sheer virtuosity, evokes the doings of the mythical daughters of the god Poseidon. The performance shimmers with rapid scales and overt impressionism. The Sicilienne, from the second Suite, is more thoughtful but never morose. It is a little rondo with a theme introduced by a soft reed stop on the swell. There are three refrains and two episodes, and the chromatic accompaniment gets more complex as it progresses. The last piece is a warhorse. From start to finish, the Toccata is an unrelenting perpetuum mobile. It tests the organist’s skill to the extreme, and ends in absolute triumph.
Little more needs be said. The organ sounds magnificent. This is an excellent package: superb performances, great sound quality, brilliant documentation and rewarding programming. In the opening days of 2024, this release is already on my list of recordings of the year.
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Percy Whitlock (1903-1946)
Fanfare, from Four Extemporisations (1933)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Partite diverse sopra “Sei gegrüßet, Jesu gütig, BWV 768 (c.1705)
Jean-Baptiste Robin (b. 1976)
Regard vers l’Air (2007)
Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)
Symphonie-Passion, op.23 (1921/1925)
Dietrich Buxtehude (1637-1707)
Magnificat primi toni BuxWV 203 (?)
Searle Wright (1918-2004)
Lyric Rhapsody (1957)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Suite für eine Spieluhr Wo0 33 (1799), arr. André Isoir (1935-2016)
César Franck (1822-1890)
Deuxième Choral en si mineur (1890)
Johann Sebastian Bach
Ciaccona in re minore from Parita II for violin solo, BWV 1004, realised for organ by Ulisse Matthey (1876-1957)
Léon Boëllmann (1862-1897)
Ronde Française, op.37 (1896), arr. Gaston Choisnel (1857-1921)
Louis Vierne (1870-1937)
From Pieces de Fantaisie (1926-1927):
Naïades, op.55 No.4
Sicilienne, op.53 No.2
Toccata, op.53 No.6