Feliks NOWOWIEJSKI (1877-1946)
Concertos for solo organ – Vol. 1
Entry into the Cathedral (Festive March), Op. 8/3 (date unknown) [3:21]
Concert for organ, Op, 56/1 (1938-1941) [31:16]
Pieces for organ, Op. 9 (unknown)
I. Prelude on Roses of St. Theresa, Op. 9/2 [3:54]
II. Prelude on a theme Kyrie from Mass No. 11, Op. 9/3 [5:48]
III. Introduction to the chorale Salve Regina, Op. 9/4 [3:13]
IV. Introduction to the sequence Victimae paschali laude, Op. 9/7 [4:25]
V. Introduction to the hymn Veni Creator, Op. 9/8 [4:06]
Concerto for Organ in A major, Op. 56 No 2 (1938-1941) [23:04]
Rudolf Innig (organ)
rec. 23-24 January 2009, Bremen Cathedral, Bremen, Germany

A distinct advantage of smaller labels is that they tend to explore the repertoire the majors overlook. MDG are a case in point, especially with their enterprising Organ Landscape series – see my review of the Lithuanian instalment – and their collection of works for organ and choir by Jan Janca – review. Part of the latter was played on the great Sauer organ of Bremen Cathedral, the instrument used on this Nowowiejski disc. The organist Rudolf Innig is new to me, although I see his discography includes the organ works of such diverse composers as Brahms and Messiaen.

I suspect the Polish composer, conductor, concert organist and music teacher Feliks Nowowiejski is also unfamiliar to all but the most dedicated organ buffs. Among his compositions are several operas and choral pieces, but his main interest seems to have been the organ, for which he wrote six symphonies (Op. 45) and four concertos (Op. 56). Two of the latter – Nos. 1 and 2 – are recorded here. But first, the undated Entry into the Cathedral (Festive March); it’s a magisterial piece, yet the central section is more delicately scored. The recording is deep and wide, with no muddying of detail, and Innig plays with commendable restraint and dignity. An excellent introduction to this collection and a piece I’d be happy to revisit.

The Op. 9 organ pieces – of which Nos. 5 and 6 are lost – are based on chorales and Polish hymns. The solemn cadences of No. 2, ‘Prelude on Roses of St. Theresa’, are splendidly done, although it soon becomes clear that Nowowiejski’s sound world is rather short on transparency and general lightness of touch. That said, there are some lovely rhythms here, and the movement ends in a mood of genuine serenity. The third prelude – based on the Kyrie from one of the composer’s Mass settings – strikes me as bluff and forbidding, akin to Sibelius but without the colour, thrill and momentum one hears in the latter’s splendid pieces for organ. The remaining three pieces, based on a chorale, a sequence and a hymn, are accomplished enough – No. 4 is more colourful than the rest – but they are just too unvarying to hold one’s ear for long.

The first of the Op. 56 concertos is a somewhat lugubrious affair, the opening ‘Veni creator’ emerging slowly from a dark cistern into the bright light of day. There is some marvellous pedal work here and moments of sustained ecstasy that may well remind listeners of early Messiaen. As for textures, they are remarkably dense, the material intensively worked; indeed, the effect is almost improvisatory at times. The Sauer organ is certainly a splendid instrument, but one senses that weight and overall shape matter more in this music than colour or nuance. By contrast, the second movement, ‘Infantes Dei’, has a lovely melodic line, although Nowowiejski really does seem to favour dark, bass-led sonorities. As for the final movement, ‘Epilogue: In Paradisum’, anyone looking for a hint of Messiaenic radiance will be sorely disappointed. No epiphanies here, I’m afraid.

The second concerto isn’t much different, although the opening salvoes of the first movement really demonstrate the Sauer’s heft. But for all its virtuosity there’s a rather dry aspect to this music, its gargle and roar apt to become a tad wearying after a while. That said, even at its blustery extremes the MDG engineers manage to maintain the organ’s focus and clarity, the ancient, well-worn melodies of the ‘Canon Grčgorien’ especially well caught and played. There’s a welcome leavening of mood and texture here, but then Nowowiejski retreats into imperiousness in the concluding ‘Toccata’. As required there is a lightness of touch in parts, but on the whole it’s just too inscrutable for my tastes.

I suppose if one had to characterise Nowowiejski’s idiom it would have to be a rather pedagogic focus on the music’s rigorous inner workings and general architecture at the expense of instrumental colour and harmonic variety. The effect is not unpleasing, but some listeners may find the composer’s musical persona – and the Sauer sound – much too stern and joyless for comfort. As with the music, the liner-notes are just as earnest and uninspiring.

So, apart from a memorable curtain-raiser there’s little here I would care to revisit; still, MDG must be applauded for taking risks with repertoire most labels wouldn’t touch. No doubt there are still some gems to be unearthed, but you won’t find any here.

Dan Morgan

No doubt there are still some gems to be unearthed, but you won’t find any here