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Frederik MAGLE (b.1977)
Like a Flame
Track-listing at end of review
Frederik Magle (organ)
rec. Jørlunde church, Denmark, 22-23 December 2009. DDD
PROPRIUS PRCD 2061 [59:49 + 73:11]

Experience Classicsonline

This is probably not the easiest product in the world to market: 130 minutes of organ improvisations, with grandiloquent titles like "Crossing Borders", "Destiny", and "Dreams of Childhood Dreams", played on an obscure instrument in a little village in western Denmark by a relatively unknown Danish composer-organist. Magle’s biography boasts that he "also works with film scores and crossover music, blending contemporary classical music with other genres such as jazz, rock, and electronica." Not really a concept to have music-lovers reaching frantically for their wallets!

It hardly helps that Frederik Magle has a tendency to come across in print as a little precious. For example, on his website, his presumably self-penned biography says he "began composing at the age of five and took lessons of piano and music theory from the age of six. The first public performance of his music took place when he was 8 years old." The big 'welcoming' photo of him on the site, also host to the "Magle International Music Forums", verges on the self-parodic. In the CD booklet notes he says that the music on this double disc forms a "story", one of "restless, sometimes tortured minds on a journey somewhere between the unreal and the all too real." He says of the improvisations: "And alive they came, each like a being with an individual story to tell. Filled with different emotions: joy, hate, love, anger, despair, sorrow, hope, but having one main purpose: to become." They came alive to become? Magle is not writing in his native language, and his English, though good, is not perfect - but is that an excuse for pretension?

So is there any compelling reason to listen to his music? Categorically, the answer is yes. Once the first CD is spinning, Magle's linguistic liberties and idiosyncrasies quickly fade as the quality and imagination of his improvisations become apparent.

Magle was commissioned to design the new organ at the 12th century church at Jørlunde in 2004, and it was built by Frobenius & Sons. In December 2009 Magle immersed himself for two days in organ improvisation, playing a total of 60, of which he chose 23, "meticulously sorted into this musical and mental journey" for this album, "unedited as a one take live recording."

He describes the whole experience as "psychedelic", but there is nothing hallucinatory about the quality of the results. Magle's music-making is highly creative, sometimes visionary, surprisingly unpompous (titles excepted), and always basically tonal - or at least chromatic - and tuneful. Magle himself was sufficiently impressed to undertake to commit all the improvisations to score - this is music recorded backwards!

The hour-long first disc flies past. It opens dramatically with the huge chords of 'Origin', yet the second and third pieces, 'Like a Flame' and 'Fleeting Glimpses' could hardly be more different, with their catchy ostinatos and high registers. Almost sardonically, given the comments above, the longest piece, 'To Become', is outstanding, building up a thrilling, Franckian wall of sound before relenting peacefully. Magle admits in the notes that this one work, the longest on either disc, is only partly improvised. The final track, 'Truth', begins bizarrely, like a clapped out organ being crank-started, and ends just before the organ bursts into flames - which is just what the original instrument at Jørlunde did! The 'Truth' is stranger than fiction - but startlingly original.

The opening piece on CD2, 'Odditorium', is aptly named - a ride through a fairground Haunted House to the Magle's phantasmagorical accompaniment. 'Through the Mist', the second track, is a much longer, reflective piece, whereas 'Memories of Meadows' is not unlike a reworked ancient Celtic folk tune, complete with droning bagpipe. The disc ends with a marvellous Widor-like toccata, 'Ascending', followed by the almost extra-terrestrial 'End of the Circle'. It is this kind of intelligent variation which characterises the whole programme - dramatic window-rattlers alternating with pieces that are serenely uplifting or contemplative and others again that are mischievously eccentric or playful. To complement this there is also a steady flow of ideas, expertly implemented, within the improvisations themselves. At no point in the two hours is the listener's attention given cause to flag; yet the music is often so emotionally intense that, between discs, a cup of tea at the very least is advisable.

Sound quality is reasonably good, though there is a slight fuzziness to the quieter sections. One minor quibble is that the tracks are very closely cropped, especially at their beginnings - not a problem when a whole disc is played, but more noticeable when individual tracks are selected. The CD booklet design is...different. Magle looks far more genial on this photo. All things considered, this is a double CD that no fan of original organ music should be without.


CD 1
Origin [4:18]
Like a Flame [3:59]
Fleeting Glimpses [3:02]
Towards Truth [8:42]
A Temptation [5:53]
Merry-go-round [3:40]
Awakening [6:02]
Awake [4:12]
To Become [12:12]
Realization [3:39]
Truth [4:06]
CD 2
Odditorium [3:20]
Through the Mist [9:18]
Crossing Borders [5:59]
Dreams of Childhood Dreams [4:15]
Memories of Meadows [7:12]
Behind the Mask [5:33]
Empty Fair [6:40]
Lament [6:41]
Journey Forever [6:02]
Destiny [9:12]
Ascending [4:03]
End of the Circle [4:52]