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.