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Jav Recordings


Art of the Symphonic Organist - Vol. 4
Ken Cowan (organ)

Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Overture from Die Meistersinger von Nüremberg (1867) [10:34]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Danse macabre (1874) [8:31]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)

Three Impressions, Op. 108
Symphonischer Choral: “Ach bleib mit deiner Gnade,”
Op. 87, No. 1 [7:24]
Anton RUBINSTEIN (1829-1894)

Kamenoi Ostrow (1907) [7:53]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Étincelles, Op. 36 [3:10]
Concert Etude in F Major, Op. 72, No. 6 [1:38]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Presto in B-flat Major (1934) [1:55]
Guy BOVET (b.1942)
Salamanca from Trois Préludes Hambourgeois (1986)
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)

Allegro deciso from Évocation Poème Symphonique Op.37 [7 :22]
Ken Cowan (organ)
rec. 6-11 August 2006, Quimby Pipe Organ at First Baptist Jackson


Experience Classicsonline

This is a substantial recital by one of America’s younger stars in the organ firmament. Recorded in the August heat of 2006, the photos from the recording session inside the booklet show Ken and the team are clearly warm enough, and mention is made of the problems of recording in such conditions in terms of tuning – even with the air-conditioning in the church. Little of this is apparent on the recording however, and the Quimby Pipe Organ, an ‘heroic’ instrument named for Michael Quimby and the Quimby firm whose work brought together elements from several different instrument to create this no holds barred blockbuster.

The instrument and the playing are not all trouser-flapping bass, and one of the more interesting characteristics is the sheer range of colours available, from joyous percussion through numerous special effects to the sheer power of the Great. The literal spread of sound is another feature for which SACD comes into its own. The pictures show an organ which covers almost the entire rear wall of what looks like a fairly vast space, and so there is plenty of antiphonal to and fro as well as the additional acoustic information of the church itself.

Ken Cowan’s playing is subtle and sensitive. He creates plenty of magisterial contrast in Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’ overture and draws plenty of lyrical expression from Karg-Elert’s late romanticism. The Saint-Saëns Danse macabre is Kevin Cowan’s own arrangement, and aside from plenty of orchestral effects he uses Vladimir Horowitz and Franz Liszt’s piano versions as source material. The tempo might have pushed a little harder, the waltz sounding more genteel than menacing through much of the piece, but I can imagine how this might have been a technical and practical choice. The special effects added to Anton Rubinstein’s gently nostalgic Kamenoi Ostrow are sheer Hollywood on occasion, but the finger work in both Moszkowski’s Concert Etude and Poulenc’s Presto is breathtaking. Guy Bovet is a Swiss organist, musicologist and composer, and his Trois Préludes Hambourgeois were originally improvisations, subsequently transcribed from tapes. The Salamanca mixes a popular Spanish folk theme with quirky accompaniments and contrapuntal developments. Dupré’s Allegro deciso from the Évocation Poème Symphonique provides a fittingly spectacular conclusion to the programme.

We in Europe are somewhat spoilt by the qualities inherent in the best instruments over here, and it is unfair to criticise American instruments in these terms. The traditions on either side of the Atlantic are separate enough to make the true American organ an entirely different beast to the French or German instruments of the last century, but it is fair to point out some of these differences so that listeners have an idea what to expect. Melody lines tend to have a ‘fat’ quality which is emphasised somewhat by the surprisingly dry acoustic of the First Baptist Jackson. There is a grand array of music-box and bell effects, most of which are in tune with the rest of the organ, but these do have an icing-sugar quality which may not appeal to some staunch traditionalists. The upper registers evidenced in Moszkowski’s brilliant Étincelles do have a sparkling quality, but in general the edges are quite rounded in the sound of this instrument – which is fine for all-round playing, but restricts the ultimate sock-blowing-off which such a huge instrument would seem to promise. Even the movement from the final Évocation Poème Symphonique seems to fail to ‘take off’ in quite the way one might expect from a Cavaillé-Coll type instrument, for which it was of course written. As an all-American recital this is a magnificent performance and a grand recording of a remarkable instrument. Those interested in exploring the American view of symphonic organ repertoire could do worse than investigating this series from JAV. My only problem with this release is the lock, stock and barrel transplantation of a great swathe of European music for this most American of instruments. Looking through the rest of the JAV catalogue and I begin to wonder if there is any home-grown American organ music in existence at all. Now that would be an interesting programme.

Dominy Clements


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