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Ottorino RESPIGHI (1875-1936)
Suite in G major for strings and organ ‘In the Antique Style’ (1901-05) [21:32]
Francis POULENC (1899-1963)
Concerto for organ, strings and timpani in G minor (1936-38) (23:05)
Joseph Gabriel RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)
Concerto No 1 in F major for organ, strings and three horns, Op. 137 (1884) [24:52]
Peter King (organ)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/François-Xavier Roth
rec. 3-5 January 2007, Abbey Church of Saint Peter (Bath Abbey), England. DDD.

This disc has been issued to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the organ built in 1997 by Johannes Klais of Bonn at the Abbey Church of Saint Peter, Bath; a former Benedictine Monastery. It contains three appealing works for organ and orchestra. Each composer has been greatly inspired by music of the renaissance, baroque and classical periods and often employed older forms of music in their scores. Appropriately the soloist on the Klais organ at Bath Abbey is their organist and choirmaster. The recording has been produced in association with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and BBC Radio 3.

The opening work is Respighi’s Suite for strings and organ. This neo-baroque work in four movements, modelled on the style of the Concerto grosso, is described by Regent as, “Respighi’s opulent and luxurious homage to the eighteenth century and the Baroque suite.”

In this performance I was impressed by the energetic playing and the remarkable forward momentum in the Preludio - Moderato; a movement so reminiscent of J.S. Bach. In the Aria - Lent one feels that the composer may be describing a passionate love affair. The soaring lyricism of the string melody is especially appealing and one notices how the texture thickens at 2:31 with a full-bodied organ part. I especially enjoyed the light and introspective Pastorale - Andante molto sostenuto seeming to hint at a sinister undercurrent. In the magnificent closing movement Cantico - Grave one is struck by the restless energy of the robust and angry organ and the dark and misty low strings.

This excellent performance is now my preferred version of Respighi’s Suite in G major. Of the alternatives I remain fond of the vigorous and colourful 1990 recording from Goldsmith’s College, London by organist Leslie Pearson with the Philharmonia Orchestra under Geoffrey Simon on Cala Records CACD1007 (c/w The Ballad of the Gnomes; Adagio for Cello and Orchestra and Three Botticelli Pictures).

Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto was a commission from Winnaretta Singer, the Princesse de Polignac, the music patron and heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune. The score provides the date of composition as April-August 1938 although a letter from Poulenc states that he was working on the score much earlier in May 1936 (Francis Poulenc ‘Echo and Source’ Selected Correspondence 1915-1963. Translated and edited by Sidney Buckland. Publisher: Victor Gollancz Ltd. London 1991. ISBN 0-575-05093-4. Pg. 354).

Widely acknowledged as one of his finest works it borrows extensively from diverse music of earlier periods, notably J.S. Bach and Mozart. The Organ Concerto was first performed in June 1939 at the Salle Gaveau by Maurice Duruflé and the Paris Symphony Orchestra under Roger Désormière.

The Organ Concerto is cast in a continuous single movement with seven discernable sections. There is an extrovert and rather unsettling Andante of a strong liturgical character, followed by a hectic and energetic Allegro giocoso that reminded me at times of a Keystone Cops chase. The substantial Andante moderato is mainly light and contemplative which serves as a contrast to the Tempo allegro, molto agitato section where stress and anxiety prevail. The good humoured section marked Très calme - Lent has a gentle and relaxing temperament followed by the Tempo de l’allegro initial section that contains all the joy and fun of the fair. In the final section marked Tempo introduction - Largo the cheerfulness is dispensed with as the assertive and soberly disconcerting mood of the opening movement returns.

I still greatly admire the version of the Poulenc Organ Concerto from organist Peter Hurford and the Philharmonia Orchestra under Charles Dutoit. This exciting and robust version was recorded in 1992 at St. Albans Cathedral on Decca 436 546-2 (c/w Piano Concerto and Concerto for Two Pianos).

Today the least known of the three featured composers, Rheinberger, was an influential professor of organ and composition at the Munich Conservatory for almost thirty-five years where he remained until his death. A close friend of Hans von Bülow and Johannes Brahms, Rheinberger did not follow the progressive ‘New German School’ of Liszt and Wagner preferring older music with baroque and classical traditions and the early romantic movement.

In this romantic three movement Organ Concerto one is immediately struck by the robust integrity of the music. The opening Maestoso is highly melodious with a conspicuous masculine strength. By contrast the passionate and romantic central Andante has an ethereal sense of floating and meandering. The concluding movement Con moto is industrious, inventive and highly melodic. At 3:39 a beautiful but rather fleeting theme is heard before being unfairly snatched away.

This was my first hearing of Rheinberger’s Organ Concerto No. 1. I note that there are several alternative versions in the catalogue. Probably the best known is that from organist Paul Skevington and the Amadeus Orchestra under Timothy Rowe from McLean, Virginia in 1999 on Naxos 8.557787 (c/w Organ Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 177).

Throughout these three scores Peter King provides assured and inspiring performances ably assisted by the splendidly prepared BBC National Orchestra of Wales. The Klais organ has an impressive tone and remarkable wealth of colour, and these magnificent and challenging scores put the instrument through its paces to achieve great success. ‘Demonstration standard’ seems to be rarely used term these days but this Regent release is recorded to that elevated quality. The interesting booklet notes are fine and will satisfy most needs.

For those looking for something different to the mainstream this collection of Respighi, Poulenc and Rheinberger organ concertos, superbly recorded and performed, makes a fitting choice.

Michael Cookson



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