organ

Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 2)

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Being the host nation, music from Norway was especially well-represented at this year’s Nordic Music Days in Bodø. Harnessing the large and impressive organ of Bodø Cathedral, Trond Kverno‘s Triptychon 2 was one of the fieriest things i heard at the festival. We tend to think of toccatas as fast-flowing, though the ones that appeared here were often crushingly strong, to the point that it sounded as if their notes were audibly fusing into dense clusters. Its more ruminative middle movement only made the powerful outer sections sound more assertive, the final movement managing to turn a pedal point into an aggressive surge before letting high notes hang while the pedals became pushy in the depths. And just when it seemed the work couldn’t get any more forceful, organist Gro Bergrabb’s rendition of the final climax was so crashing it practically threatened the integrity of the building. Read more

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David Briggs – Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes (World Première)

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One of the minor passions of my listening life, which i rarely write about here, is organ music. It doesn’t come up very often in the world of contemporary music, but it did a couple of months back in the gala recital at this year’s OrganFest at Llandaff Cathedral. Performed by David Briggs, on the cathedral’s newly-installed instrument, the entire second half of the concert was given over to a brand new symphony completely improvised by Briggs, grandly titled Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes. i’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of Briggs’ live performances, and i’ve never heard any organist who has wowed me more – both his abilities at improvisation as well as his astonishingly effective transcriptions of well-known works of orchestral music (especially his Mahler symphony arrangements). The use of French in the title of this new improvised symphony connects the work to the 20th century French organ school tradition, though due to its three movement structure, and the nature of those movements, it resembles less the suite-like symphonies by the likes of Widor or Louis Vierne, being more closely-related to those of Marcel Dupré. Read more

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Jakob Ullmann – Fremde Zeit Addendum 5; Stefan Fraunberger – Quellgeister #3 Bussd

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 1 Comment

i’ve been spending time lately with new releases from two composers towards whose work i’ve hitherto felt almost universally positive. There’s something a little nerve-racking about this, inducing anxiety – and, to an extent, incredulity – that the unfamiliar new will be able to live up to the marvellous old. That’s especially true in the case of Jakob Ullmann, for while i’ve been fascinated and engrossed in all of the discs of his music steadily put out by the ever-dependable Edition RZ label – in addition to occasional (but too few) performances of his work – i’ve nonetheless always found myself wondering what’s left to explore in Ullmann’s edge-of-audibility soundworld.

The latest disc of his music, Fremde Zeit Addendum 5, reveals that there’s actually quite a lot – though its nature is rather surprising. The album features a single hour-long work of Ullmann’s, Solo V for piano, though describing it as “for piano” doesn’t even begin to hint at the reality of what this piece does, or is. As with the other solo works released by Edition RZ, the piano is situated in a vast space, becoming a microscopic presence within a seemingly infinite macroscopic universe. This bears strong similarities to the way the bassoon is perceived in Müntzers stern (one of my best albums of last year), though there’s much less sense here of the solo instrument causing the environment to resonate. Read more

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Four aspects of Erkki-Sven Tüür: Spectrums

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries, CD/Digital releases, Retrospectives | 1 Comment

Birthdays and anniversaries provide an excellent opportunity to stop and look back, and contemplate everything that’s happened along the path of time that leads to here and now. This week – on Wednesday, in fact – marked the 60th birthday of Estonia’s most unconventional and irrepressible composer, Erkki-Sven Tüür. i’ve been listening to the most recent CD of his music, Spectrums, and considering how this impressive cycle encapsulates different aspects of his musical personality. In some ways, the four parts of Spectrums, each of which involves the organ, are like snapshots – selfies, perhaps – of Tüür at different stages of his musical life. Together, they present a fascinating portrait of an ever-changing yet always consistent composer. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 1)

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There’s something absolutely right about the bringing together of Norway’s Only Connect – a festival that, as its name implies, encourages one to question (inter)connections between ostensibly disparate musics – with Tectonics, Ilan Volkov’s peripatetic festival the name of which evokes fundamental, underlying bedrocks that continually meet, connect and rupture. Taking place last week in the city of Stavanger, in the south-west of Norway, it’s only the second time the two festivals have conjoined, and the results were often appropriately volatile. That being said, one of the things that struck me powerfully during the festival – and this echoes my experience of Only Connect last year – was its almost complete lack of ostentation. The impacts it made were frequent and deep, but there was rarely an overt sense that this is what was actively being sought by the composers and performers. i’ve long felt that a certain kind of nonchalance – by which i mean the avoidance (or at least, the disguising) of obvious signs of audience direction or manipulation – is essential to the most powerful musical experiences, and at Only Connect that was its prevailing character, and i’ve no doubt this was a major factor in making those impacts as deep as they were. Read more

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Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim – The Slow Creep of Convenience

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If you were to take Jakob Ullmann’s solo III for organ, Stefan Fraunberger’s Quellgeister series and Monty Adkins’ recent Shadows and Reflections and use them as the basis for a new composition, the result would probably closely resemble one of the most (if not the most) stunning releases i’ve heard so far this year: The Slow Creep of Convenience by Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim. Ullmann, Fraunberger and Adkins all utilise the organ as the basis for their long-form, slowly-evolving soundworlds, and while The Slow Creep of Convenience adds Veltheim’s electric violin to Pateras’ pipe organ, the two are so seamlessly blended that for much of its 50-minute duration it’s easy to hear the violin as an integral timbral extension of the organ. However, the main reason i cited those three works, aside from instrumental and durational considerations, is because of the way The Slow Creep of Convenience combines Ullmann’s determined patience, moving according to its own internal logic rather than external expectations or conventions of musical narrative, Fraunberger’s improvisatory unpredictability, responding to the sounds themselves rather than to a pre-planned scheme, and Adkins’ harmonic complexity, establishing a soundworld that at once both alludes to and undermines varying notions of tonality, remaining ever in flux. Read more

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Proms 2017: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove, Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Preludes (World Premières)

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As will have been clear from my 38th mixtape back in April, my love affair with the organ has been a long and significant one. It’s an instrument that often gets overlooked in the world of contemporary music, so a definite plus of this year’s Proms season has been the opportunity to hear three new works for the instrument. They come courtesy of organist William Whitehead, who has been curating the Orgelbüchlein Project, commissioning composers to complete Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was originally planned to span the entire liturgical year, but Bach only finished 46 of the intended 164 chorale preludes. The newest additions to the project are by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb, and were premièred by Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday. Read more

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Minimal and dangerously liminal: Jakob Ullmann – fremde zeit addendum 4

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Despite the fact that writing about amazing music is such an unalloyed pleasure, there are times—many more times than i would care to admit—when the music skitters away, becoming elusive when confronted by one’s attempts to speak of it. Perhaps there’s no dishonour in being confounded by glory, but the frustration has never been more acute than when trying to write about the music of Jakob Ullmann. Including the outstanding fremde zeit addendum 3CD boxset of his music near the top of my 2012 Best Albums list wasn’t just an act of fitting celebration but also of defeat; the bland paragraph i wrote to accompany its entry came after umpteen doomed attempts at something more substantial earlier in the year. So when the Edition RZ label recently sent me their latest release of his music, fremde zeit addendum 4, it seemed only fitting to try again.

For anyone unacquainted with Ullmann’s music, there are equivalent points of entry to be found in any of the releases Edition RZ has put out over the last few years, A Catalogue of Sounds, voice, books and FIRE 3, the aforementioned boxset as well as this new CD. It’s worth mentioning that Edition RZ—one of the most forward-looking of labels in any case—has been essentially a lone advocate where Ullmann is concerned; considering how many of his works remain unperformed and recorded, other labels would be wise, finally, to catch on. For there is something truly extraordinary going on in Jakob Ullmann’s music, music that positions itself in a place that is both minimal and dangerously liminal. Read more

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Jehan Alain – Trois Danses

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Anniversaries, Commemorations | 2 Comments

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Jehan Alain, one of the most interesting and enigmatic French composers of the first half of the twentieth century. To me, Alain’s unique musical sensibility draws comparison with two other composers; the free-spirited, swirling exoticism and spontaneous evocations of feeling suggest Alexander Scriabin, while the introspective, at times almost mystical nature of the music (particularly in his sense of pacing and remarkable use of melody) brings to mind the deep intensity of Alain’s great contemporary, Charles Tournemire. Alain has been on my mind a great deal lately, particularly as i’ve recently finished work on a lengthy electronic piece composed in Alain’s memory. Titled Night Liminal, it’ll be released on CD in the not-too-distant future; more information about that soon. But to commemorate today, here’s a recording of one of Alain’s most fascinating compositions, the Trois Danses, originally composed for piano in 1937, when Alain was 26 years old, and arranged for organ two years later. Alain also began making an orchestral arrangement of the work but the manuscript was famously sucked from the carriage of a moving train, and tragically never recovered. Read more

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Messiaen on Speed (or Dieu parmi nous – what not to do)

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Being Christmas Day, organists up and down the land will be putting Messiaen‘s Dieu parmi nous through its paces. In the UK, it’s become practically as ubiquitous as Handel’s Messiah, so with the wonderful and timeless “Messiah on Crack” in mind, i offer you what we might perhaps call “Messiaen on Speed”.

At the 2001 Proms, Wayne Marshall gave an organ recital that included the last two movements of La Nativité. Whether Marshall was drunk, over-excited, showing off, taking the piss, eager to get home early, or some wild combination of all the above i have no idea, but the result rather boggles the mind. Marshall takes most of the music at a tempo so fast as to be way beyond ridiculous, his fingers literally spilling over the keys—wrong notes a go-go—sounding like an organ transcription of one of Conlon Nancarrow’s more frantic studies. Inevitably, all the detail of Messiaen’s material is completely lost, and the closing toccata simply has to be heard to be believed. Marshall turns Messiaen’s coruscating hymn of joy into a excruciating but hilarious exercise in meaningless velocity. Oh, and the organ’s out of tune too.

HAPPY CHRISTMAS!

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Proms 2011: Thierry Escaich – Evocation III (UK Première)

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Thierry Escaich‘s recital on 4 September brought to a close the contribution of the organ to the new music at this year’s Proms (preceded by Michael Berkeley’s Organ Concerto and Stephen Farr’s recital at the start of the season). Escaich’s programme included much familiar fare—Reger, Franck, Liszt—in addition to an example of the rather tiresome party favourite beloved of so many organists these days, improvisations “in the style of” other composers. Fran(c)kly, this kind of escapade does no-one any favours, and Escaich was on much more certain and meaningful ground in the UK première of his own Evocation III, a short work based on the 16th century Lutheran chorale, ‘Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland’ (“Now come, Saviour of the Gentiles”). Read more

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Proms 2011: Michael Berkeley – Organ Concerto

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The Prom concert on the evening of 3 September included a performance of Michael Berkeley‘s rarely-heard Organ Concerto, performed by David Goode with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales. There are few British composers who seem to be so centrally connected to the world of music than Michael Berkeley. Son of Lennox, godson of Britten, Berkeley is arguably best known to many through his broadcasting work on television and radio, although as a composer he’s charted an interesting, if at times, quizzical path. The reason i mention the sense of interconnection projected from Berkeley’s cultural persona is because it’s often struck me that his compositional voice doesn’t so much bubble up from within, but appears to be forged from notions, ideas, mannerisms and traits from a plethora of other composers. That’s not intended as a negative criticism at all; on the contrary, in his best music, Berkeley, far from being a ‘stylistic magpie’, comes across as a sort of æsthetic impresario, in the process generating something quite unique irrespective of the apparently disparate nature of its sources. Read more

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Proms 2011: Judith Bingham – The Everlasting Crown (World Première)

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Given that so few composers seem to show any real interest in the organ these days, the prospect of a new work for the instrument at this year’s Proms—of 35 minutes’ duration, no less—was a mouth-watering one. Splendidly, the honour was given to Judith Bingham, a composer who, compared to some, seems ever to be lauded in somewhat muted tones, yet in my experience, never seems to put a foot wrong in her diverse output. Her oeuvre flits in and out of direct religious statement, but even pieces with a more secular emphasis usually allude to things spiritual. Her new work for organist Stephen Farr, The Everlasting Crown, is just such a piece, exploring the perhaps unlikely subject of precious stones associated with powerful historical figures, stones that, “undecaying, constant – represent aspects of monarchy and power” (from Bingham’s programme note). Read more

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David Briggs – Symphony in Four Movements

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A former Director of Music of Gloucester Cathedral, David Briggs has made something of a name for himself as a creator of large-scale improvisations. From a compositional standpoint, they’re generally contrived and unoriginal; Briggs – like fellow organist Wayne Marshall – has a penchant for creating music in the styles of others, rather than forging an individual style of his own. Also like Marshall, his musical personality tends toward the extravagant, but while in Marshall’s playing the results are reckless and repulsively showy, Briggs manages to focus this quality, bringing a breathless exuberance to his performances. Most remarkable of all, though, is his technique with the instrument, which is simply amazing. Read more

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Messiaen’s Méditations – the greatest organ work of all time?

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Trinity Sunday, and an opportunity to share one of the most prized CDs of my collection. It’s a complete recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s organ cycle Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité, performed by Messiaen himself on the organ of the Parisian church where he was organist for most of his life, the appropriately named La Trinité. The nine meditations (which i shall be hearing in concert in a month’s time) are among Messiaen’s finest creations – still controversial for some due to his quirky creation of a “communicable language” that he then uses to “say” phrases from Scripture. Nonetheless, the sounds and textures are unique in the organ repertory, bearing little resemblance to conventional – or, indeed, any other – organ music. Despite taking liberties with his own score, Messiaen’s performances are incredibly exciting, and the recording is marvellously vivid, capturing the timbres brilliantly (the deep bass notes are, literally, breathtaking). Read more

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