Tender is the North
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Two Pieces Op.111 (1925-1931) [10:46]
Niels W. GADE (1817-1890)
Tre Tonestykker Op.22 (1851) [13:02]
Selim PALMGREN (1878-1951)
Two Preludes (1908) [2:32]
Áskell MÁSSON (b.1953)
Larghetto (2009) [8:13]
Knut NYSTEDT (b.1915)
Variasjoner over ‘Med Jesu vil eg fara’ Op.4 (1940) [13:09]
Otto OLSSON (1879-1964)
Sonata Op.38 (1909) [22:47]
Iain Quinn (organ)
rec. Coventry Cathedral, 3-5 August 2009
CHANDOS CHAN 10581 [71:02]

I tried Ian Quinn’s Czech Music disc on Chandos a few years ago, and though thoroughly enjoying the playing I was a little less bowled over by the organ sound from Norwich Cathedral. Here at Coventry Cathedral we are on firmer ground, with a fine modern instrument from Sydney Campbell together with Cuthbert Harrison, a replacement for the ‘father’ Willis instrument which was completely destroyed during the air raid of November 1940. Using this eloquent instrument, Iain Quinn modestly “offers but a brief glimpse into the world of Nordic organ music.” His own booklet notes admirably place each composer and their work into context, and as usual Chandos provide us with a sumptuous experience both in sonics and presentation.

Jean Sibelius opens this programme with a stirring ‘Intrada’, the first of the Two Pieces Op.111 and one of his best known pieces for organ. This is followed by a ‘Surusiutto’ or Funeral Music, which is laden with darker harmonic hues and a minor key feel. This was written for the funeral of Sibelius’s friend the painter Akseli Galen-Kallela, and was his final instrumental work. Both of these pieces have the kind of craggy strength which Sibelius brought to his symphonic composition, and won’t disappoint fans of his more emotionally powerful work.

The Danish composer Niels W. Gade was another fine symphonist and a contemporary of Mendelssohn, working with him in the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. The stylish and charming Tre Tonestykker or Three Tone Pieces hark back to the well tested formulae which led to the success of Mendelssohn’s Preludes and Fugues some years before. Finnish composer Selim Palmgren’s Two Preludes are his only contribution to organ literature, and in their compact form serve usefully as liturgical intermezzos, the first a gentle Tranquillo, the second a kind of incidental work, with rising and falling sequences over a pedal note held throughout.

Áskell Másson was a new name to me, but he is one of Iceland’s leading names in contemporary music. Iain Quinn has given the UK and USA premieres of a number of his pieces, and it was a logical step to include a work of his in this programme. The recently written Larghetto is depicted by the composer as “contemplative, somber music… serenely peaceful.” None of the pieces here are of a particularly difficult idiom, and Másson inhabits the genre of composition which you might expect from someone like Charles Camilleri, except with icicles rather than warm Catholic mysticism. The Larghetto rises in a grand arch, growing from and returning to that serene atmosphere described via a more chromatic and emotionally charged middle section.

Knut Nystedt is a highly respected and celebrated Norwegian composer best known for his orchestral and choral work. Nystedt was organist at the Torshov Kirke in Oslo, and his Variasjoner over ‘Med Jesu vil eg fara’ he follows tradition in exploring a variety of compositional techniques and the full range of the organ over seven fascinating variations, the final Allegro energico of which is a truly spectacular treat.

Otto Olsson was a Swedish organist and composer who wrote widely for the organ, and was recognised as one of the great virtuosos of his time. His work is firmly anchored in the late romantic idiom, and the work of Widor and Reger as well as Bach can be named as sources for his compositional inspiration. Dating from 1909, the Sonata in E major Op.38 is an early example of an extended solo organ piece from any of the Nordic countries, Olsson clearly being keen to import the large-scale proportions from the French and German romantic tradition. This music is genial and relatively uncomplicated in nature, with a transparent luminosity in the general feel of the registrations and musical material - in other words, substantial, but never overblown. Iain Quinn points out the pedal solo which opens the Finale, a boisterous and confident statement which has a similar sense of fun to some of Lefébure-Wély’s work.

This is a superb organ disc which brings together some perhaps less well known composers and pieces, but offers tremendous value in terms of quality in all aspects: superlative performance, interesting and inspired programming, a rich well-balanced recording of a superb instrument in peak condition, and a picture of a snowy scene on the cover.

Dominy Clements