Nielsen’s organ works are a small part of his overall output, and require a filler to make for a satisfactory CD programme. One of the early releases on the BIS label, BIS-CD-131 has most of these pieces played by Elisabeth Westenholtz on a fine if occasionally somewhat strident instrument in the Grundtvik Church in Copenhagen. This disc is coupled with Nielsen’s Three Motets Op.55, but does not include the Festival prelude, or the Melody.
The sound and balance of the recent Mühleisen organ on the present recording is at once grander in scale, and at the same time rather recessed in terms of the listening perspective. Taking the main single work on this disc, Commotio, there is a certain amount of detail lost in the densest passages, something which the BIS disc deals with better. Turning up the volume helps a little, but there are limits. I have no doubt there is a great deal of spectacular playing going on, and Nielsen’s arguably rather overly orchestral organ writing is another problem to be overcome, but the rather unfocused sonics and woolly pedal tone conspire against significant chunks of this work being communicated effectively. As a thorough workout of Westenholtz’s recording proves, detail in this work is vital - there are so many inner voices running around that we need to be able to hear as much as possible of the inner workings.
For the slighter works this is less of a problem. The straightforward block chords of the Festival Prelude for the New Century have a mighty sense of weight, though the actual harmonies are more suggested rather than given true clarity. The 29 Short Preludes Op.51 were written for organ or harmonium, and have a more intimate character. Again, the BIS disc wins hands down for clarity and expression, and the rather overblown scale of the instrument on this CPO disc count against the more chamber-music feel these pieces need. Take a pair of my favourites, the preludes No.5 and No.6. With Westenholtz the first of these has a warmth of expression and lyricism which creates its own special atmosphere, and the innocent melody of No.6 makes my heart melt every time. On this new recording the first of this pair lumbers along with menace rather than charm, and the second as more of a catechism intermezzo rather than a memorable miniature gem. Some preludes come off better than others, and these performances are by no means universally awful. Just a few examples such as the softly rounded Prelude No.4 and sweetly chiming Prelude No.11 show the breadth of colour available on this instrument to good effect, and on its own terms this is a good enough set of Nielsen’s Op.51. The Two Posthumous Preludes and Melody, originally to have been No.14 of the Op.51 set, are all lovely. I remain to be convinced however, and can’t escape the feeling that Nielsen’s intention is missing out on something elusive and hard to describe, but missing nonetheless.
Rued Langgaard is a composer whose work ranges from the spectacularly bizarre, such as the memorable Music of the Spheres to the rather conventional church music we have here, written for use in Langgaard’s hard-won position of cathedral organist in the city of Ribe in West Jutland. This is well crafted music in a fairly romantic idiom. The preludes Ascension Day,‘Buried’ - First Sunday after Trinity, and Harvest Prelude all follow biblical narratives in a tonal language acceptable and recognisable to church congregations both today and in the 1940s when they were written. Axel Gade is a respected name in Danish music, and was Langgaard’s uncle. At the Funeral of Axel Gade is far from being a mournful dirge, David Fanning’s booklet notes describing it as “more consoling than lamenting in tone.” The concluding work for the programme acts as an opposing book-end for Nielsen’s Festival Prelude being in the same key, and a fairly typical if rather darkly effortful rather than overtly joyous Wedding March.
A fair amount of fuss is made in the booklet about the qualities of the instrument used for these recordings, as well as the nature of the recording itself. While I don’t want to dispute this in absolute terms I do feel it has been a less than ideal choice, especially for Nielsen’s Commotio, which is after all a central work of the programme. The booklet indicates that the recording has more “the character of a concert”, and while I am quick to agree this is most certainly the case I would dispute that this is ideal for a recording. Sitting at gravestone level in a church with the organ on an entirely different plane is something one accepts and adapts to in a concert situation. With this recording the feeling is very much that we are hearing the instrument at a tangent, somewhere at the top of a rather large hill to be frank, and that there is a great deal more that we are missing in the detail of the more complex passagework of Nielsen’s admittedly sometimes ‘difficult’ masterpiece. This is particularly true of the standard stereo mix, but I have given this disc every chance, and while I agree the SACD layers help and the surround effect does give the feel of being “practically transported into the church space” I think I would have rather taken the compromise of a more artificial microphone placement and accepted the trade-off of greater clarity. Quieter moments in the work do create some lovely effects, and my criticisms are more in frustration than in a damning of the performance as a whole. Friedhelm Flamme has recorded before on this very instrument to great effect, so I’m crossing my fingers here and hoping I’m not sailing on a wind of misguided subjective impression here. I have done the decent thing and come back to the recording after a while to make sure my first impressions weren’t based on senses battered by long driving sessions, aberrant atmospherics or cheap beer, but even while appreciating much of the playing on the disc and the undoubted strengths of what must by all accounts be a magnificent instrument, I stand by my niggles. As mentioned, many of the Nielsen preludes fare better, but I also find myself having difficulties with the scale of the organ sound against the modest ambitions of the music in many of these pieces. I don’t insist they be played on a squeaky harmonium or chamber organ, but having come to know and love these pieces through a more neutral medium and, by all accounts, a more sensitive and involved sounding interpreter on that BIS disc I mentioned earlier, I find many of these performances hard to love. The Langgaard pieces are all fine if at the same rather vague and woolly distance, but none of them are going to set the world turning on a different axis either way. This is a nice enough disc, but in the end the flag I will be waving to that far-off organist is a white one.