What an intriguing idea, a series of recordings based on organs
of different cities, regions and countries. MDG have already given
us the organs of Vienna, Jerusalem Pomerania (see review),
Carinthia, Latvia (see review)
and Portugal, among others. Now it’s the turn of Lithuania, whose
many instruments are well represented in this new volume. The
music ranges from the 17th to the 20th century,
all of it performed by the multi-talented organist Martin Rost.
Apart from his regular post as director of music at the Church
of St Mary, Stralsund, he is also responsible for a number of
organ restoration projects.
Rost is the organist
in four of the Organ Landscape discs, for which he has also
provided exhaustive notes. In this latest instalment he provides
a potted political and religious history of Lithuania, as
well as detailing the work of various organ-building ‘schools’
from the 18th century onwards. The first instrument
on this disc, in the Monastery Church, Tytuvenai, was
designed and built by Nicolaus Jantzon (1720-1791). It was
restored by Latvian organ builders specifically for this recording.
Appropriately enough, Rost has chosen music from the so-called
Warsaw Tablature, a collection of largely anonymous pieces
collected in the second half of the 17th century.
The Prelude in G shows off the instrument’s robust but nicely
rounded tone; the arias, ballet and dances, all high baroque
in character, are elegantly played.
The 1617 organ
of the Franciscan Church, Kretinga, was Lithuania’s oldest
until it was destroyed in 1941. What we hear on this disc
is a salvaged, partly restored, 17th-century instrument;
the music is culled from the oldest collection of organ music
in Lithuania, the Organ Book of Kraziai, assembled
at the Jesuit College, Kraziai. In Rost’s capable hands these
pieces emerge as if freshly minted. It’s not the quietest
of organs, but it has a pleasing clarity and brightness of
tone. The writing is florid but never cloying, the lower registers
surprisingly rich and weighty. Hardly rafter-rattling, but
then the instrument suits the solemn, rather intimate, nature
of this music.
Vilnius and its
churches suffered at the hands of Swedish troops in the Great
North Wars of the early 18th century. To deal with
that, and the aftermath of several major fires, the so-called
‘Vilnius school’ of organ builders was created. An early instrument,
in the city’s Dominican Church, was destroyed in one of those
conflagrations and was replaced by Adam Gottlob Casparini
(1715-1788). It’s bigger than any of the organs we’ve heard
thus far, with a wider and more subtle colour palette, but
ongoing restoration work has restricted the scale of the pieces
played here. It’s an all-too-brief selection from the Warsaw
Tablature, including a delicate Canzona in G, attributed to
Frescobaldi. I suspect when it’s fully restored this will
be an instrument to savour.
According to Rost
most of Lithuania’s 400-plus organs were built between 1860
and 1940. The instrument in Kretinga’s Lutheran Church, installed
in 1899, is heard here not in late-Romantic repertoire but
in baroque-style pieces by Friedrich Wilhelm Markull and Christian
Podbielski. In particular, the filigreed writing of the latter’s
Arioso un poco andante comes over very well indeed.
As always Rost manages to bring out each organ’s individual
sound, no mean feat in a collection as wide-ranging as this.
Here, though, the character of the instrument – and the music
played – may be a little too austere for some. That said,
the recording remains clear and well focused throughout.
The organ in the
Monastery Church, Dotnuva, is a curious affair. Built in the
early 19th-century by Brother Modest Mikniewicz
it may seem crude next to professionally designed instruments,
but it comes across as reasonably rich and well-rounded. The
sound only becomes opaque in Bogunski’s Intonation in C; thankfully,
matters improve in the witty little Andante that follows,
suggesting that while this is an instrument of limited abilities
it can be made to sound reasonably sophisticated. The pipes
contain plenty of lead, so I wonder what that will mean for
this organ, given the EU’s latest Directive on this controversial
As Rost makes
clear in his notes the history of Lithuania’s organs is the
history of Lithuania itself. That includes the period of Soviet
occupation – from 1940 onwards – in which churches were closed
or assigned more utilitarian roles. Only in the 1960s were
they re-established, with important organ restoration following
in the 1970s and 1980s. The main and Oginski Chapel organs
of St John’s Church, Vilnius, are products of this renaissance;
the smaller instrument has a pleasing, slightly reedy, sound
that suits the chosen music very well, whereas the larger
one has considerably more heft. Home-grown organist, composer
and pedagogue Jan Naujalis features in three pieces here.
They are large in scale, but Rost’s unerring sense of proportion
and scale means they are never overpowering. Pleasing music,
albeit a touch anodyne.
As much as I came
to admire this disc and the thinking behind it I did have
doubts about some of the music chosen. No real quibbles about
the very early works, which are entirely appropriate for the
older instruments, but the Naujalis, Sokulski and Moniuszko
pieces are on the dull side. Again, I suppose one needs to
be reminded of the philosophy behind this MDG series, which
is to offer a historical perspective rather than set off a
battery of organ fireworks. Approached in that spirit this
collection is likely to be much more rewarding.
The Bruno Goebel
organ of the Parish Church, Sveksna, dates from the early
1900s, as do the Fourteen Organ Preludes of Lithuanian
painter-composer M K Ciurlionis. This music is probably best
described as Scriabinesque, with dense, swirling harmonies
that are apt to clot at times. The mysticism of East Prussian
composer /organist Max Gulbins is Christian, his Passion one
of several meditations on episodes from the Bible. It’s a
sombre piece, weighed down by rather too much Protestant piety.
I can only assume this dark-hued repertoire was chosen because
it’s contemporaneous, but I don’t feel it tells us very much
about the Sveksna organ itself.
organ-builder Martyna MasaIskis (1858-1954) installed the
Pumpenai instrument in 1899. It comes across well, broad an
deep with plenty of charm and character in its finer details.
Just sample Cesar Cui’s lovely Prelude in A flat major, which
seems as if it’s illuminated from within. Not the sort of
music one associates with the ‘Mighty Handful’, but a delight
none the less. The two pieces by Ceslovas Sasnauskas may be
more majestic but they are far less memorable. That said,
they do underline the organ’s many virtues, especially its
range of colours. Rost rounds off with four more Ciurlionis
preludes, the first and last of which reveal the organ’s bell-like
The final instrument
in this collection, from the Parish Church, Vabalninkas, is
a three-manual organ built by Juazopas Radovicius around 1890.
Ciurlionis’s Chorale Fugue, transcribed from a piano original,
is light and airy compared with some of his preludes. The
instrument also has a lovely, pellucid sound in its higher
registers, not to mention a hint of bass heft in Naujalis’s
understated Malda (A Prayer).
In fact ‘understated’
describes this disc perfectly. As I suggested earlier it’s
more of a historical document than a set of showpieces, and
in that sense it will surely appeal to aficionados more interested
in the organ-builder’s art than the organist’s keyboard skills.
This, allied with a consistently good recording and fascinating
notes, makes for a most rewarding issue. It’s certainly piqued
my interest in the series, the rest of which are on my wish