Several of the finest organ recordings of recent years have
come from Finland, the result of a remarkable collaboration
between Finnish organist Kalevi Kiviniemi and tonmeister
Mika Koivusalo. Regular readers will know how I have championed
these discs, as much for their technical excellence as their
unfailing musicality. These recordings are only available from
Fuga in Helsinki, whose logo also graces this new CD of music
written – and played – by Santeri Siimes. At the heart of this
recording is the Cavaillé-Coll-inspired organ of Kallio Church,
an instrument Siimes has played since the tender age of 12.
The Gallic theme extends to the CD cover and liner-notes, where
French comes first. But then this composer is much influenced
by the likes of César Franck and Charles-Marie Widor, who wrote
specifically for the new, more symphonic, Cavaillé-Colls of
the day. Not only that, Siimes has played at Notre-Dame de Paris
and was part of Naji Hakim’s organ master-class in 1999, all
of which points to a real affinity for this great French tradition.
And while that might hint at clumsy pastiche, it soon becomes
clear that Siimes has a strong, distinctive voice of his own,
his playing as assured as his writing.
The Kallio organ, built by Åkerman & Lund in 1995, is beautifully
presented in the opening Toccata. By definition, such
pieces should be flamboyant – this one certainly has its moments
– but warmth and weight seem to be the watchwords here. The
swirling pedals are well caught by engineer/producer Petri Kaipiainen
and his team, the deep, rolling bass unclouded by distracting
echoes. As for the music itself, it’s deftly constructed and
played with what I can best describe as restrained virtuosity.
Paradoxical as that may seem, it’s about the performers projecting
their personality without getting in the way of the music, even
when it’s a showpiece. It’s a rare attribute, and one that applies
to compatriot Kalevi Kiviniemi and the German organist Hans-Eberhard
Roß, whose Franck recordings for Audite are very special indeed
The first of the two organ symphonies is in five parts, beginning
with a rather grave Moderato maestoso. Above that glorious bass
hangs a luminous treble line, the music building to a thrilling
close. At times I was reminded of Sibelius, whose monumental
œuvre for organ can be heard on another fine disc from
Fuga – review.
But it’s the meditative moments – the final bars, for instance
– that are most impressive, as serene as anything Franck ever
wrote. And it’s Franck who comes to mind in the engaging Andante,
extended sections of which lie in the organ’s mid and upper
reaches. There’s much to savour here, the fullness, clarity
and colour of this great instrument very well conveyed.
The Scherzo has a real spring in its step, Siimes’ nimble footwork
underpinning a shimmer of sound above. It’s a beguiling synthesis
of bounce and gurgle, the Méditation reminiscent of Olivier
Messiaen at his most rapt and contemplative. Indeed, there’s
something of the church window here, each coloured pane glowing
with a lovely, sun-sent radiance. It’s verges on the hypnotic,
the stillness shattered by the unmistakable Cavaillé-Coll-like
bellow of the Finale. All very different from the darker, more
sustained sounds of Complainte, the organ’s rich, rounded
tone exploited to the full in Siimes’ score. And despite the
work’s rather static character there are no longueurs
to speak of.
Organ Symphony No. 11 is perhaps the most Franckian,
kicking off with an imposing Introduction and allegro. Widor
springs to mind as well, but then Siimes is apt to add an unexpected
twist of harmony or rhythm that makes this music sound more
than merely derivative. As an aside, I did wonder whether the
recording focuses too much on the admittedly impressive middle
and lower registers of this organ at the expense of the upper
ones. True, that may have more to do with the score than the
balance, but there are times when I wished for a distinct –
and distinctive – treble sound. A minor caveat, I agree; at
least we’re spared the merciless jangle that spoils all too
many organ recordings.
Franck returns in the lightly sprung rhythms of the Andantino;
here the organ’s pellucid upper reaches are much more
prominent, a welcome counterbalance to the ubiquitous pedals.
The Scherzo is less agile, but then that seems to be
the intention; the awkward, galumphing bass is probably the
closest we get to humour in this work, which ends with a lovely,
luminous Cantilène and fiery Finale. In the latter
the beast is unleashed, but even here Siimes maintains a focus,
a degree of control, that stops the music sliding into empty
showmanship. It’s a vast, gaudy piece which, thanks to a judicious
recording, shows no sign of stress or strain. And while it may
not have the startling tangibility of a Koivusalo-engineered
SACD, this is still a very satisfactory recording.
Siimes has managed a sleight of hand with these scores; while
paying homage to the French organist-composers of the 19th
century he has also managed to give the music a character all
of its own. This music easy to listen to – in the best, most
positive sense – and I look forward to hearing more of Siimes’
work when it appears on disc. Until then, this is a recital
that’s fully deserving of your time and hard-earned shekels.