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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Pastels and Impressions

Ach bleib mit deiner Gnade Op 87 No 1
Seven Pastels from the Lake of Constance Op 96
Eight Short Pieces Op 154
Trois Impressions Op 72
Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H Op 150
Hans Fagius (organ)
Recorded on the 1928 Frobenius organ of Aarhus Cathedral, Denmark April 2000
BIS CD 1084 [79.57]


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Nearly eighty minutes of the ever exciting – and often downright perplexing – Sigfrid Karg-Elert, born as the rather plainer Sigfried Theodor Karg. In fact the excitement frequently coexists with the perplexity so diverse were his interests and musical influences, not all of them orthodox. With the Symphonic Chorale which opens the disc, however, we begin with the more traditional aspects of his art – a reverence for Bach, command of a tripartite structure, superb writing, instinctive dramatic sense and a large dynamic range expertly deployed. In the Seven Pastels written in about 1920 we are introduced to wider and more intriguing influences. If it is hard to imagine an organ suite manifestly influenced by Debussy and Scriabin as well as containing strange echoes of silent film music then we have heard far too little of Karg-Elert’s music for our own good. Or maybe his – in later life he apparently repudiated the piece, doubtless finding distasteful the impressionistic colouring, strange registrations (listen to the suitably reedy registration of IV The Reed-grown waters), the harmonically advanced daring of II Landscape in Mist, or the rampantly American brio of III The Legend of the Mountain. With its dramatically pompous ending and rather sly coda it is a remarkable example of a composer trying to bend and fashion stylistically incompatible elements to his will. It is also virtuosic, quixotic and fascinating.

The rest of the disc never quite approaches this level of dramatic incongruity but it does contain much of interest. The Op 154 – Karg-Elert was not a frugal composer – consists of eight miniatures originally intended as a set of 24 piano preludes. These are stylistically unified and hermetic pieces – though the forthright Canzona solemne is a forthright, somewhat uncharacteristically pungent piece and not reflective of the cycle as whole. The finale, a Corale, is a grand piece with enough harmonic ambivalence to keep complacency at bay. Hans Fagius’ own entertaining and thought-provoking sleeve notes are more than merely admiring of the Trois Impressions – in fact he goes so far as to call them "among the most beautiful, atmospheric pieces ever written for the organ" which is a stratospherically bold claim. Certainly this impressionistic suite is embedded deep in late Romantic syntax, tonal and rhapsodic, though the Wagnerianisms of La Nuit, the last of the trio, are maybe too overt to be fully integrated into the fabric of the piece. It is nevertheless an odd, affecting language that Karg-Elert has cultivated in this piece.

His last major organ work, written for a disastrous US tour of 1932, was the Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H. In its more bizarre moments it can seem diffusely trivialized but at its heart this is an immensely powerful, colourful and flamboyant work. Its development is dramatic, its harmonies piquant, and whilst Fagius outlines the textual problems with the piece and calls the conclusion, in the printed score, "feeble" there is an undeniable extrovert grandeur about it. He certainly plays it as if he means it, a sine qua non of Karg-Elert interpretation.

Splendid sound, and generously intelligent notes from the excellent organist.

Jonathan Woolf


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