Wagner wrote nothing for the organ and didn’t seem to have a very high opinion of the instrument. Transcriptions of Wagner’s most famous “tunes” can be found in many an organ loft. Find me an organist who hasn’t had to play the "Bridal Chorus" from Lohengrin.
One of the most notable performances I can think of is the Ride of the Valkyries
played by Dame Gillian Weir on the BBC DVD King of Instruments
PRDVD 7001 - a fascinating watch on many levels, musically as well as if you have an interest in 1980s fashion.
The present disc tries to take a different approach to the question of the relationship between organists and Western music’s biggest giant. Loïc Mallié - a self-confessed Wagnerite - wanted to explore Wagner through his own instrument but felt that existing transcriptions failed to do justice to either the instrument or the music. He eventually settled on using his excellent improvisational skill to explore the music.
Taking the ‘chorale-prelude’ from Meistersinger
as the starting point, this disc is a set of 11 improvisations which roughly take the shape of a French organ symphony in structure. On first glance, this CD could be taken as a bit of fun, a sort of musical “Where’s Wally” of Wagner themes, but what transforms this into a project of serious consideration is the partnership between organist, organ and thematic material. Saint-Säens was a fan of Wagner but later in his life grew less fond of his contemporary. Dubois gives a very eloquent account of why this was:
“He remained true to himself and allowed himself to be influenced neither by the aesthetics nor by the style of the great innovator ... He wanted to remain French. Yet he was convinced that Art should evolve, while remaining unshakably linked to the traditions handed down by the works of our great forebears.”
This is the essence of this recording. Mallié is remaining faithful to his own training - including with Olivier Messiaen - and to the organs of Cavaillé-Coll with which he is intimately familiar, whilst exploring music of another … but on his own terms. Viewed in this way, this CD is hugely enlightening. It gives an insight into Mallié’s view of Wagner and also ideas of how other people might explore music in a similar manner.
Perhaps this thought process is more than one would care to consider when listening to a CD. Putting aside these deeper reflections, the CD is a very enjoyable listening experience. The themes are familiar, the organ sounds wonderful and the skill of the organist is remarkable. My favourite is “Tristan” which is given a reflective opening, building to a more anguished peak before diminishing again. The rich organ sounds here feel weighty enough to carry such a well known idea. The imaginative powers of Mallié stand as a lesson to all organists who attempt improvisation to whatever level. The humble respect shown to Wagner’s themes is in the excitement and newness that can be given to themes that many people will recognise.
A deserving Recording of the Month
for its innovation, skilful execution and enjoyment.
See also review of original issue by Chris Bragg