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Petr EBEN (b.1929)
Organ Music, vol.5

Landscapes of Patmos (1984) [23:27]
Prelude 1 (2000) [4:58]
Gloria (Prelude 2) (2000) [2:45]
Triptychon (2000) [11:26]
Campanae gloriosae (1999) 8:34]
Okna (‘Windows’) (1976) [20:13]
Halgier Schiager (organ)
Eirik Raude (percussion)
Jan Frederik Christiansen (trumpet)
rec. Hedvig Eleonora Kyrkan, Stockholm, 15-17 June 2004. DDD
HYPERION CDA67198 [71:49]

 

My acquaintance with Petr Eben’s music goes way back to the late 1980s, when great wobbly heaps of imported Supraphon LPs were being shifted at rock bottom prices by an enterprising and still successful local shop in The Hague. It was like home from home. My first mass purchases of Supraphon LPs had been for 50p a throw in the basement of Newport’s W.H. Smith (now MacDonalds’ toilet). For those school dinner-money prices one is prepared to take the occasional risk, and so my insatiable curiosity meant that names like Eben, Trojan, Kalabis, Klusák, Feld and Fišer became like childhood friends.

Having already been enchanted by Petr Eben’s ‘Windows’ I subsequently found myself less attracted to the other organ releases which supplemented my collection until now. With this new Hyperion release I am delighted to discover that my initial interest has been fully justified, and my disappointment more the result of trying to extract real music from those less appealing scratchy LPs. Not yet having sampled the other volumes in Hyperion’s new series I can only assume that the quality of both music and performances is as high as on the present CD, which now means having to make a start on saving up to complete the set – don’t tell the missus!

Eben has for a long time specialised in composing for organ, and Landscapes of Patmos is one of a number of pieces that combine the organ with other instruments. The composer writes ‘The combination of organ and percussion is one … in which the organ can display the whole richness of sound with no restriction to the softer stops.’ Eben has a practical approach, and in order to make the piece playable has restricted the percussion instrumentation to smaller, more portable instruments capable of being set up in most organ galleries. The Landscapes each make reference to images from the biblical Apocalypse, but Eben refers to them as symbolic, abstract events rather than pictorial or programmatic pieces. He contrasts the instrumentation with each movement, using drum sounds, metallic, and wooden for each of the three (out of five) main movements respectively. The drums accentuate the organs rhythmic entries, heightening the drama of already potent, sometimes creepingly menacing or angular, stabbing chords in the opening Landscape with Eagle. The second movement, Landscape with Elders, combines tubular bells, crotales and tom-toms in a quite spare and remote sounding collection of textures, the organ and percussion rarely overlapping. Landscape with Temple is a longer, solemn movement with gongs emerging from the organ’s slow, chorale-like material. This develops along with tubular bells, whose rich harmonics work highly effectively with the colour of the organ. Sparkling glockenspiel accentuate the intermittent ostinati in the central section, and an arch-form brings back the bells and gongs toward the end. Landscape with Rainbow is the shortest of the five, re-introducing rhythmic conversations between the organ and tom-toms, and leading into the final movement with ringing upper voices in the organ and more tubular bells. The two outer ‘animal’ movements hold the greatest drama, and the last, Landscape with Horses return to angular organ figurations with woodblocks, cowbells and xylophone, this last inviting the only direct aural comparison to Bartók’s ‘Sonata for two pianos and percussion’.

Like all the works on this CD, Landscapes rewards repeated, attentive listening. The colourations between percussion and organ make for a fascinating musical journey, and the balance and distance with both instruments is perfect, giving the impression of a concert performance rather than an artificially over-miked recording. If I have any criticism it is only that the whole piece is never quite as apocalyptic as I might have expected from such a subject.

Prelude I and Gloria (Prelude 2) are basically festive works, the first for the retirement of the American concert artists manager Karen McFarlane, and the second to mark the 65th birthday of the Bishop of Mainz, Cardinal Karl Lehmann. These occasional pieces are characterised by their short duration, and by contrasting sections in which the organ is allowed roam expressively or to thrill in full, visceral splendour. Never superficial, Eben manages to pack a great deal into both pieces, the Gloria being based on Gregorian chant – although you probably wouldn’t guess it!

Triptychon was written as a commission from the Hofkirche in Lucerne. The music is sourced from the organ tablature, namely the Three Ricercari of Johann Benn, who was born c.1590 around Messkirch, Baden. Eben set this material into his own personal idiom, and the themes used appear less as overt statements but more often amalgamated into more contemporary organ textures. The overall impression is one of ‘almost’ variations, each movement being through-composed but with a distinct sense of rondo-like cadence. This is quite approachable organ music, with typical colour and variety in the textures and registrations – if you like (for instance) Jehan Alain you will find much to enjoy here.

Campanae gloriosae was another commission, this time from the Cathedral of Trier to mark the 25th anniversary of their organ. The piece derives its material from the five notes of the cathedral bells, and those of a neighbouring church. Organ works based on bells seem to be almost invariably jovial and up-beat, and this is no exception. There are moments where Eben almost seems to be having a joke with the organ, playing around with semitone intervals and repeating notes to make it sound like a barrel-organ. There is a reflective central section which uses a vox humana vibrato, which is fortunately quite restrained and subtle on the wonderful sounding instrument used on this recording. The final section is suitably ‘Carillon de Trier’, with plenty of thematic gamesmanship with the notes of the glorious bells.

So to ‘Windows’. Okma is the piece for which many will have been waiting in this series, and it receives a recording and performance that will in no way disappoint. My scratchy old Supraphon LP has the organist who played the first performance, Milan Šlechta, but a different trumpeter from that premiere performance in 1977. That 1981 recording comes in at 18:22, but with a more resonant acoustic I am unsurprised by the slightly longer timing here (20:13). In any case, the Hyperion recording is superior in every respect, with the trumpet far closer to the organ in terms of balance. The trumpet fits in with the acoustic, and grows in and out of the organs textures in the way the composer must have intended. The muted trumpet and restrained organ sounds of the second ‘Green Window’ movement are particularly magical. The ‘Windows’ are of course Marc Chagall’s stained glass work representing the tribes of Israel, and for me the poetic nature of Chagall’s colour and images was never better reflected than in the way these pieces are presented here. Jan Fredrik Christiansen’s trumpet playing is effortlessly expressive and musical, with a wide range in sound spectrum from soft and rounded, elliptically eloquent, or penetrating the organ’s fff like a tungsten dart; for instance at the end of the ‘Red Window.’ I had my follicles all ready to be rearranged by the polytonalities of the final ‘Golden Window’, and even after a number of hearings this recording has yet to let me down. I’m putty in the hands of a simple chorale with wrong notes over the top, and the two musicians place their parts perfectly: understated, but convincingly eloquent, and later with plenty of bravura playing with which to close this excellent record.

As with many a collector’s series I’m sure that anyone who has tried and enjoyed the other issues in this series will need little prompting to add this to their collection. Hyperion’s organ recording oozes sheer class, and the instrument itself possesses a rare and exquisite tonal quality which may have something to do with its use of a variety of earlier pipes, despite having been built in 1975-6. With the current daft lead ban, such recycling may or may not be the future of organ building in Europe, but in this case both it, and the music on which it is played, has something a bit special.

Dominy Clements

 



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