Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasie and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam from Meyerbeer's Le Prophète (1850) [34:51]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Fantasia on Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn, Op. 40 No. 2 (1899) [18:14]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce héroïque (1878) [10:57]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Danse macabre (arr. Lemare) (1874) [8:36]
Raúl Prieto Ramírez (organ)
rec. 4-6 November 2008, Milan Cathedral, Milan, Italy. DDD

The Spanish organist Raúl Prieto Ramírez is certainly new-media savvy, with a bright and breezy website and several YouTube video clips. That said, he is new to me, and this programme – the Liszt is fiendishly difficult to bring off – strikes me as pretty ambitious. As for the great organ of Milan Cathedral, that too is unfamiliar. Intriguingly, it was commissioned in 1937 by the city’s then council chairman, one Benito Mussolini, drawing on the talents of several Italian organ builders. Not surprisingly, there were conflicts and fall-outs, but since its inauguration this 15,350-pipe monster has been dismantled, rebuilt and, in 1999, thoroughly cleaned.

Liszt wrote this Fantasy and Fugue at Weimar in the winter of 1850, taking as its cue the stirring chorale sung by the Anabaptists in Act I of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act blockbuster, Le Prophète. Given the scale of Liszt’s piece – it’s in three movements lasting around half an hour – and that of this instrument, one might be forgiven for feeling intimidated at the prospect of hearing them together. The rest of the works on this disc are more modest, and don’t require quite the steel and stamina that the Liszt demands of organist and audience alike.

Christopher Herrick, in his version of the Liszt on Hyperion’s Organ Fireworks X (CDA67458) starts with a restrained statement of the Ad nos theme’ before diving into the vasty deep that is the Moderato. Alongside his very modern instrument – the Létourneau organ of the Winspear Centre in Edmonton, Canada, was inaugurated in 2002 – the Italian one sounds far more imposing. Ramírez, like Gilbert & Sullivan’s suicidal songbird, plunges straight into the billowy wave which, for the first two minutes at least, threatens to swamp everything in its path. Indeed, one can only sympathise with the engineers who have to capture this great wash of sound.

If you and your kit are up to the challenge this is actually an impressive performance, the gaudy colours of the Milan organ entirely appropriate for music of such size and ambition. Goodness, those swirling figures in the first movement are just terrifying, the bright fanfares ringing out most thrillingly. And despite excessive reverberation inner detail isn’t compromised nearly as much as I feared. As for the rolling bass, only one word will suffice: awesome. But then this is an unashamed showpiece, so the more flamboyantly it’s played the better.

Clearly Ramírez is a confident performer, for whom this music holds no terrors. He’s just as adept – and thoughtful – in the quiet waters of the central Adagio which, for all its stillness, steers well clear of the doldrums. By contrast Herrick seems brighter and lighter, the pale northerner pitted against sun-darkened southerner. It’s a fascinating contrast and one that, in terms of sheer drama at least, favours the Spanish player. The Introduction and fugue that brings it all to a tumultuous close is no less compelling, the storm-dashed opening bars as exhilarating as I’ve ever heard them. But it’s the long build-up to that shattering finale that really takes one’s breath away. The music’s towering dynamics are superbly caught.

This is an ‘Ad nos’ to remember with awe rather than affection, but for all that it’s a real achievement for Ramírez. In the unlikely event that he ever needs a calling card, this is it. I’m less impressed by the Reger, based on the chorale Straf mich nicht in deinem Zorn (‘Smite me not in thine anger’). After the abandon of Ad nos this is sober stuff, with the composer’s deep, resonant writing apt to sound glutinous in such a vast acoustic. That said, the pedals are powerfully felt, and will give your woofers a workout.

After all that drabness César Franck’s Pièce héroïque – the last the Trois Pièces of 1878should come as something of a relief. Regrettably, the colour and rhythmic vitality that characterises Kalevi Kiviniemi’s version – review – is not in evidence here. That probably has less to do with Ramírez than it does with the Milan organ and its cavernous acoustic, neither of which is particularly well suited to Franck’s more diaphanous passages. True, the Pièce héroïque lives up to its name in both recordings, but Kiviniemi’s Pori organ matches splendour with clarity and crisp articulation, qualities almost entirely absent from the Ramírez account.

Lightness and sparkle are surely de rigueur in Edwin Lemare’s transcription of Saint-Saëns’ Danse macabre. Ramírez finds some of the latter in his choice of registration, but otherwise his performance seems lumpish and overblown. For a wittier, more characterful account try Wayne Marshall’s delightful version, played on the organ of Coventry Cathedral (EMI 7243 5 72804 2 6). If anything, this demonstrates just how important it is to get the programme right; the Liszt was an inspired choice, but the rest of this disc simply misfires.

Ramírez is an organist I’d like to hear again, albeit in more suitable repertoire and a less adversarial acoustic. That said, his Ad nos is a stunner, and I’d endorse this release for that alone.

Dan Morgan

Ad nos is a stunner. Pity it wasn’t matched with more suitable repertoire.