Bohemian-born composer, teacher and self-taught organist Petr
Eben wrote more than two hundred works, many of which express
his deep-rooted religious convictions; not an easy path to take,
given that Catholicism was at odds with the political orthodoxy
of post-war Czechoslovakia. Indeed, as Dr Stefan Engels points
out in his exhaustive liner-notes, the surreal world of Communist
casuistry dictated that the work’s original title – Symphonia
Gregoriana for Concertante Organ and Orchestra – had to
be altered to ‘organ concerto’. Fittingly, Eben lived to see
the end of this regime, his Prague Te Deum written to
celebrate the country’s so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ of 1989-1990.
Also cause for celebration is Oehms’ series of SACDs devoted
to Eben’s organ music – five volumes have been issued so far
– all played by the organist on our review disc, Gunther Rost.
He’s joined here by the Bamberg and Bavarian bands that made
such a memorable impression in Jonathan Nott’s recent Mahler
‘Resurrection’ – review.
Conductor Gabriel Feltz is new to me, but the fine acoustic
of Bamberg’s Joseph-Keilberth-Saal certainly isn’t; the combination
of this excellent venue and Oehms’ proven track record in Super
Audio – their Kitaienko/Gürzenich Manfred was one of
my short-listed discs of 2010 – bodes well for this new venture.
And so it proves, the organ entry at the start of the 26-minute
Moderato wonderfully serene and most atmospherically recorded.
The music may be rooted in ancient – but still very potent –
Gregorian melodies, but it soon modulates into a distinctly
‘modern’ and more confrontational style, the organ playing more
of a concertante role than the ‘concerto’ title implies. That
said, the structure and late-Romantic idiom of this piece reminds
me of Joseph Jongen’s Symphonie Concertante for Organ and
Orchestra. And speaking of concertante roles, the gorgeous
harp writing in the Eben piece is a joy to hear; the instrument
is very well recorded, the engineers capturing plenty of depth
and providing a decent stereo spread.
This really is a most enchanting work, its quiet orchestral
pools rippled with music of real fire and grandeur. But there’s
no denying its spiritual core, T.S. Eliot’s ‘still point of
the turning world’ most eloquently realised in the profoundly
beautiful close to the first movement, the organ supplemented
by a discreet shimmer of gongs. What a contrast to the timps
and antiphonal brass that herald the Allegro risoluto,
a movement dominated by bracing sonorities and mobile rhythms.
In keeping with the air of simplicity and proportion that informs
Eben’s work, Feltz maintains a very convincing balance between
orchestra and ‘soloists’, so that even the thrilling tuttis
never seem vulgar or overblown.
The music of the Adagio, which beats with the gentlest of pulses,
has some lovely string playing; in particular there’s a brief
but telling solo for cello at 5:21 that’s echoed – most discreetly
– by the organ. Those soft gong-strokes, Angelus-like, are superbly
caught by the Oehms team, who have also made the CD layer sound
remarkably airy and detailed. That said, the Super Audio one
adds that extra bit of realism to the music-making, especially
when it comes to relaying the hall’s acoustic ‘signature’ and
the subtleties of instrumental colour and timbre.
The Allegro vivace has a clarity and bounce that’s most appealing
too – no hint of churchly gloom or whiff of incense here, especially
in those trenchant timp figures – but for the first time the
material seems just a little threadbare. I suppose one needs
to remember this is the composer’s Op. 1 after all – Eben was
just 24 when he wrote this concerto – but that certainly doesn’t
diminish my admiration for the work as a whole. And when it’s
this well played and recorded there’s precious little to criticise,
I first enountered Eben’s music on a trumpet and organ collection,
in which his Okna (Windows) blaze with spectacular intensity
It’s a much more extrovert piece from 1976 – the composer at
the height of his powers – and it does make the organ concerto
seem a little bland by comparison. But make no mistake, the
latter is still a remarkably assured piece, chockful of magical
moments. The liner-notes – including numerous musical examples
– are extremely detailed and the English translation is perfectly
adequate. Indeed, every aspect of this new release, from performance
to packaging, exudes quality. A must for Eben aficionados and
inquisitive listeners alike.