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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Organ Era – Volume 13
Grande pièce symphonique, Op. 17 (1862) [29:00]
Trois Pièces (1878) (Fantaisie-Idylle [16:12]; Cantabile [7:18]; Pièce héroïque [9:13])
Choral III (1890) [14:27]
Kalevi Kiviniemi (organ)
rec. 25-26 March 2008, Central Pori Church, Finland
FUGA 9281 [77:00]
Experience Classicsonline

‘Take the cat off the hook and throw out the phone’, I wrote in my review of Hans-Eberhard Ross’s Franck survey. That remarkable recording – since supplemented by two further instalments – really is Desert Island fare, and it’s unlikely to be bettered any time soon. Or so I thought, until a chance encounter on YouTube introduced me to two of Finland’s best-kept secrets, the organist Kalevi Kiviniemi and the record label Fuga. As a team they have produced a number of demonstration-quality discs – see my review of Kiviniemi’s Saint-Ouen recital – several of them recorded as CD/SACD hybrids.

Ever since the LP days organ buffs have longed for recordings that faithfully capture the instrument’s entire range, from the highest reed to the lowest pedal, a goal that came a little closer with the advent of SACD technology. But it’s not just about the extended frequency range it’s also about the sense of air and space that the best SACDs convey, the latter of particular importance in organ recordings. Mika Koivusalo, the technical wizard behind these Fuga releases, has shown that it is indeed possible to reproduce both the range and presence of a great pipe organ with no audible compromises along the way. I daresay in a carefully calibrated surround set-up the sense of ‘being there’ is even greater, but even in stereo these discs set new standards in musical fidelity.

Franck’s Grande pièce symphonique – dedicated to keyboard virtuoso Charles Valentin Alkan – is a real test of this technology. Close to half an hour in length – Kiviniemi clocks in at 29:11, Ross at 23:31 – it’s a mammoth work whose dense textures can so easily overwhelm the unwary listener. That’s less of a problem for Ross, as the Goll organ of St. Martin, Memmingen has a wonderful poise and transparency that suits this music rather well. The Paschen instrument in Finland’s Central Puri Church has a richer, more resonant sound, especially in the pedals, which adds immeasurably to the breadth and grandeur of Franck’s conception.

Make no mistake, though, there is plenty of lovely detail in the higher registers as well; sample the passages at 10:55 and 18:25, with their delicately etched notes sounded above a deep, pulsing pedal, just two examples of the many heart-stopping moments in this score. Ross is equally adept at highlighting these details, but the extra weight and presence of the Fuga recording could swing it for some listeners. That said, Kiviniemi’s more leisurely reading may be an issue, but when the music unfolds with such nobility one hardly notices the extra six minutes it takes to complete. And if you think it’s all about breadth and not brio just listen to the panoply of sound Kiviniemi produces in the work’s closing pages. C’est magnifique. 

The first of the Trois Pièces, originally titled Fantaisie-Idylle, seems less than idyllic at the outset, such is the music’s ponderous character. That said, Franck introduces oases of quiet contemplation, surrounded by grave, bass-dominated passages and swirling flourishes in the organ’s upper reaches. There are some grand perorations along the way, but the piece ends as quietly as it began. Not vintage Franck, perhaps, but Kiviniemi might just persuade me otherwise. No such qualms about the Cantabile, which ‘sings’ with a voice of great purity. You will hear some of the loveliest, most luminous, organ sounds imaginable, all faithfully captured by this exceptional recording.

The third item in this triptych, Pièce héroïque, is also a little muted at first but it soon modulates into something much grander. One can only marvel at Franck’s sheer inventiveness, with glittering figures arrayed above a recurring three-note pedal, not to mention an inner tension that builds inexorably to a finale of genuine splendour and weight. Thanks to good engineering the organ never degenerates into an impenetrable ‘wall of sound’ – as it so often does in lesser recordings – even when Franck piles Ossa on Pelion. For me, though, Cantabile is the pick of the bunch, and I doubt you’ll hear it more winningly played than it is here.

Choral III, based on Bach’s Prelude in A minor BWV 543, may seem a tad dry after the deluge of late-Romantic sound we’ve heard thus far. Kiviniemi certainly captures the toccata-like aspects of the piece, with an emphasis on clarity of inner detail and articulation throughout. Not my favourite Franck piece by any means; indeed, even I came close to sensory overload in the work’s long, somewhat splashy summation.

Another fine disc from Fuga and proof, if it were needed, that Kalevi Kiviniemi is one of the most exciting organists around. One might quibble about his choice of programme here, but few could argue that this isn’t playing of the highest order. Happily, there’s more where this came from, and I shall be reviewing some of them in the near future, Pressed to choose between this and the Saint-Ouen recital I would have to opt for the latter, simply because there’s nothing quite like a Cavaillé-Coll in full spate. Also, the range of music there is more varied and interesting. That said, organ buffs and hi-fi nuts should invest in both.

Dan Morgan



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