Petr EBEN (1929-2007)
Concerto for Organ and Orchestra Symphonia Gregoriana (1954)
Gunther Rost (organ)
Bamberger Symphoniker, Bayerische Staatsphilharmonie/Gabriel Feltz
rec. 14-16 April 2009, Joseph-Keilberth-Saal, Konzerthalle, Bamberg, Germany

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, really.

I first enountered Eben’s music on a trumpet and organ collection, in which his Okna (Windows) blaze with spectacular intensity - review. 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.

Dan Morgan

A must for Eben aficionados and inquisitive listeners alike.