No question, the finest new organ recordings come from Finland. Fuga lead the way with their excellent series featuring Kalevi Kiviniemi and a marvellous range of instruments. I’ve not heard as many discs from Alba, but their collection of Finnish music played by Ville Urponen – review – impresses in a quiet, unassuming way. No surprise that sound engineer Mika Koivusalo is behind many of these releases; indeed, I’d say his organ recordings – both Red Book and Super Audio – are among the most satisfying in the catalogue, characterised by the widest dynamic range and a detailed, three-dimensional presence that’s frankly astounding.
That wouldn’t count for much if the programme and players aren’t up to snuff, but I’ve yet to find a dud amongst these Finnish offerings. Mendelssohn’s are not my favourite organ pieces – they often bring to mind over-furnished Victorian parlours – but with a light touch and careful registration they can be most rewarding. The organ used here is an 1865 Marcussen & Sohn, which has a pleasing blend of scale and sweetness, the latter most evident in Mendelssohn’s quieter moments. As for the church, the booklet photographs suggest it’s a light, airy space as far removed from Gothic gloom as it’s possible to get.
So, the auguries are good, but what of the music-making? The Finnish organist Jan Lehtola – who’s had works written for him by the likes of Kalevi Aho and Naji Hakim – is new to me, but I soon took to his warmly expressive style. True, there’s a hint of that forbidding front toom in the first movement of the A major sonata, but the ensuing Andante tranquillo brings with it light and cooling air. This is playing of rare poise and transparency, most beautifully recorded. Lehtola also captures the dark gravitas of the D minor sonata’s Chorale very well – what deft pedal-work – the Fugue weighty but not overbearing, the low-key Finale judiciously proportioned and infused with a gentle charm.
The D major sonata is no less alluring, the broad – but short – Chorale a perfect foil to the skittish Andante that follows. Lehtola’s discreet pedal-work is a joy to hear, the music delectably sprung and airily recorded. Organ discs don’t get much better than this, a wholly convincing blend of detail, colour, weight and acoustic clues. Indeed, as I listened to the endearing woodiness of the concluding Allegro I found it easy to imagine myself sitting in a pew revelling in the gorgeous swirl of sound from those burnished pipes. Pure magic.
Pensive is a good description of the C minor sonata’s first movement – Grave – the Adagio imbued with an inner glow I’ve rarely encountered in the piece. Indeed, this lovely, sweet-toned organ is just right for this music, whose infectious charm and bounce can so easily be veiled by weightier, more cumbersome instruments. Make no mistake though, it’s capable of real heft when required, the Allegro maestoso as expansive as one could wish for. Even in this panoply of sound the recording never loses its composure, the Red Book layer every bit as satisfying and immersive as the Super Audio one. But then one would expect nothing less from a recording of this pedigree.
The F minor sonata was a high point of Mary Preston’s otherwise disappointing recital from Reference Recordings – review – but although Lehtola doesn’t have her floor-shaking pedals he finds more contrast and character in the opening Allegro. As for his Adagio, it has a stillness – a deep sense of communion, perhaps – that’s simply breathtaking, the call and echo of the Andante so finely calibrated. The easy reach and sheer presence of this recording is particularly evident in the final Allegro.
Lehtola is always clear and communicative, even when it comes to complex textures – the first Allegro of the B flat major sonata, for instance – the Allegretto reminiscent of Franck at his most playful. I simply cannot recall a performance of such variety, of such light and shade, the closing Allegro apt to roar as if played on a Cavaillé-Coll, albeit without the latter’s lumbering gait. But then that’s the central virtue of this collection, a sure sense of scale and balance that never succumbs to empty gestures. A rare achievement indeed.
This is another treasure from Alba’s enticing trove. Lehtola is a first-class performer, his playing full of ebullience and insight; this organ is pretty special too, its sweet, even-tempered sound faithfully caught by Koivusalo and his team.
Quite simply, a recital to relish.