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A deep silence fell....Then Janne [Sibelius] sat at the harmonium, his fingers began to touch the keys, and wonderful sounds flowed from the old family instrument. We knew he was ‘giving speech’, and we all found ourselves crying.
This touching insight into Sibelius’s character is provided by Eva Savomius, a family friend and headmistress of the Swedish primary school where the composer was enrolled from 1871 to 1874. It’s especially interesting because Sibelius is much better known for his symphonies and tone poems than for his organ music. Indeed, this issue is a world premiere recording, containing as it does all Sibelius’s works in the genre. And who better to play this than the Finnish organist Kalevi Kiviniemi, the mainstay of Fuga’s organ catalogue.
I’ve extolled the virtues of Kiviniemi’s more recent recordings, especially the one from Lakeuden Risti – review
– all of which strike a pleasing balance between exemplary musicianship and superb sound quality. How very different these discs are from those interminable ‘organ spectaculars’, where the emphasis is on sound alone. The recent Mary Preston recital from Reference Recordings – review
– is one of the latter, a not entirely convincing attempt at sonic splendour let down by variable performances as well. The modern organ used in that recording – the Fisk Op 100 in the Meyerson Symphony Center, Dallas – didn’t appeal to me either, but really the age and provenance of the instrument matters little if it’s put to judicious use.
‘Judicious’ is an apt description of Kiviniemi’s playing style, as well as his choice of organ and repertoire. Whether it’s the mighty Cavaillé-Coll of Saint-Ouen, the Grand Paschen organ of Pori’s Central Church or the noble Kangasala at Lakeuden Risti, one senses his choices are carefully made, the music matched to the instrument and its unique acoustic. This Sibelius recital is no exception, the late-19th
-century Walcker – three manuals, with 16’ and 32’ pipes – seems ideally suited to the thrust and scale of the works at hand.
The first of these is the Intrada
Sibelius wrote for the Swedish Royal couple’s visit to Finland in 1925. Even by the high standards of ceremonial organ music – Walton comes to mind – this is simply stupendous, a horizon-stretching panoply of glorious sound presented with astonishing depth and clarity. If there is any lingering reverberation in the Stadtkirche it isn’t in evidence here, so the articulation and impact of those mighty cadences is never clouded or compromised. A rousing start to this disc and proof, once again, that engineer Mika Koivusalo and his team have set new standards when it comes to organ recordings. Even in its CD form the music is presented with remarkable fidelity and dynamic range, but that would count for little if Kiviniemi’s playing weren’t so wonderfully assured as well.
Sibelius’s largest work for organ is the 11-movement Masonic Ritual Music,
Op. 113. Kiviniemi uses the 1927 score for the first eight sections, the later revision – designed to be played on the Helsinki Freemasons’ first pipe organ, installed in 1947 – for the rest. It’s an ambitious work that contains music of surprising intimacy and character. The distinctive breathing sound of the harmonium is never far away, especially in the solemn Adagio and the little Moderato that follows. Indeed, Kiviniemi’s choice of registration underlines the deep, almost mournful nature of the harmonium, the music allowed to swell and subside to wonderful effect.
The Poco allegro is beautifully shaped, Sibelius building melodic bridges in the organ’s upper reaches under which a river of bass always flows. There is plenty of tension here too, the main theme restated more powerfully each time it returns. The Marcia – Trio I – Trio II adds some interesting new sonorities, the gentle Andantino pulsing as if with inner light. The small scale of the latter is particularly affecting in the context of music that so often overwhelms, rather like those quiet – but ineffably beautiful – passages in a Bruckner symphony.
And there’s more of the monumental Sibelius in Salem where, to continue the Brucknerian analogy, the music builds to a series of great peaks. This really is music of symphonic proportions, miraculously condensed into just under three-and-a-half minutes. The organ sound is always thrilling, the sense of being in the presence of a great instrument simply overwhelming. I’d urge anyone who thinks organ music is noisy and tedious to sample this one track and marvel at just how varied and involving it can be. And as if to reinforce the point, the Tempo giusto and Marche funèbre brim with the kind of inner detail and melodic development one expects of a Sibelian tone poem. Moreover, when the recording is as fearless and all-enveloping as this, one’s admiration for the music – and the organist’s keyboard skills – is much enhanced. Just listen to those huge gear changes in the funeral march, adroitly done.
Ceremonial Sibelius returns with a solemn Ode to Fraternity
, followed by the dark, swirling harmonies of Hymn – now there’s
music for sorcerers – before closing with a simple, affirmative Ode. It’s a measure of Sibelius’s craft that in three just short movements he can vary the mood, colour and heft of the music with such apparent ease. More important, perhaps, is that Kiviniemi intuits – and articulates – those shifts with equal skill. It’s a most rewarding musical partnership, and one that’s unlikely to be trumped any time soon.
Not all of the music on this disc was written for the organ. The Andante festivo
began life as a string quartet but in 1938 Sibelius conducted a version for string orchestra and timpani. The arrangement for organ is by Karl Ekman, who also penned an early biography of the composer. Yes, it’s somewhat measured but it’s never ponderous. Indeed, there’s a sense of nobility both here and in Menuette, from the King Christian II Suite
. Even though this incidental music to Adolf Paul’s play wasn’t written for organ either – Kiviniemi uses the composer’s arrangement for piano – the elements of charms and fantasy are generally well preserved. That’s especially true of the opening Elegie, the ensuing Musette mobile and mischievous. Only the Lied – Fool’s Song of the Spider
–seems more lumpish than it might otherwise be.
reveal two very different sides to Sibelius’s developing musical character, the first lean and transparent, the second lumbering and impenetrable, Fortunately the Stadtkirche’s acoustic helps contain and focus the dissonances of the latter, which surely evoke the grind and judder of tectonic plates. And, as always, good engineering pays dividends, with even the CD layer retaining its composure to the very end.
Despite its title the Impromptu
is no lightweight either; it’s dark and doleful, the music pealing like a giant bell. Which segues rather neatly with Sibelius’s Mournful Music,
written for the funeral of his artist friend Akseli Gallen-Kallela. And what a stirring piece it is, by turns gaunt and grand, that same bell tolling in the bass. As in a procession the music builds to a climax as the cortège approaches, fading to silence as it disappears from view. I’d have been quite content to end this recital there, but Kiviniemi closes with the 1948 version of the Marche funèbre. Not very different from the earlier one but with the added nuance and colour that a proper pipe organ can give.
Although this is one of Fuga’s earliest SACDs it yields nothing to the company’s more recent offerings. It’s a musical and technical partnership that has been blessed from the start, the lucid liner notes and splendid photographs underlining Fuga’s commitment to good production values. And if that weren’t enough I’m told there’s more to come – and soon – so watch this space.