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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-05) [25:33]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
from Daphnis et Chloé (1909-12): Lever du jour [5:56]
from Valses Nobles et sentimentales (1911): No. 2 Assez lent [2:22]; No. 3 Modère [1:44]
La Valse (1919-20) [15:18]
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1899) [5:52]
Boléro (1911) [15:58]
Gunnar Idenstam (organ)
rec. September 2013, St Martin’s Church, Dudelange, Luxembourg.
BIS BIS-2049 SACD [73:46]

The concept of the organ as an ‘orchestra’, or at least as having the potential to compete with large-scale instrumental ensembles in terms of variety of colour and volume, is by no means new. This CD is however an unusual one, transforming works some of which being so quintessentially for orchestra and so expertly orchestrated that it would seem a strange move to attempt them on organ or anything else. The description of the 1912/2002 Stahlhuth/Jann organ used, with its combination of French and English characteristics, makes it ideal for a project such as this. One of the features Idenstam uses is the extreme contrast between certain reed stops, which leap out from the background starkly and at times to startling effect. We can at least rest assured that this fine instrument is being given a demonstration performance.

Gunnar Idenstam lays out his feelings from the outset in the booklet, listing these as “works that I am so fond of and that fascinate me so much that I simply have to play them on my own instrument.” Idenstam’s project is by no means an ego trip however. He prevaricated for years before finally pushing through and completing his version of La Mer, describing his solutions for making as close a sound as possible to the original instruments and orchestral sections from Debussy’s score.

You would hardly expect such an arrangement to be an improvement on the original, but my inclination is always to take such a treatment on its own terms. There is no doubting Gunnar Idenstam’s skill in both creating and performing La Mer, but even with such detailed and sincere work it takes quite a leap to meet the sheer sweep and depth of the orchestral version even halfway. What, however, if Debussy had never made his orchestral score, and this were to have emerged from some dusty archive as an entirely new discovery? I think this would swing the balance of argument entirely in the other direction, and we would all be raving about strikingly imaginative use of the organ and a remarkably far-reaching foray of impressionist music into an entirely new context.

There are some moments which work less well than others, including a section from about 6:20 into the third movement, Dialogue du vent et de la mer, which does sound a bit more Southend Pier than the turbulence of nature, but odd associations are in fact relatively few.

Nature and sunrise are vital elements in Ravel’s Lever du jour from the Daphnis et Chloé suite. Burbling and elemental surges are all done highly effectively by Idenstam, and the organic shape of this relatively small-scale movement works very well indeed. The works originally for piano have been arranged based on these originals, also with reference to the composer’s own orchestrations. This applies to the Valses nobles et sentimentales, nos. 2 and 3, contrasting “slow, melancholy and introspective” with the third, “playfully graceful in all its simplicity”. These also work well, though there is always a sense of effort rather than flight with the waltz rhythms on organ when compared with the percussive nature of the piano.

Idenstam is happy to explore the lower registers of the organ, and the opening of La Valse is a pretty uncompromising test of your Hi-Fi’s low frequency detail. This does allow the music to develop from almost nothing. The dynamic arc and sense of mad fantasy are superbly rendered - all within an understated and controlled tempo which preserves clarity and endows the piece with an imperturbable sense of surreal and gothic threat. The Pavane pour une infante défunte is more straightforwardly melodic, and Idenstam’s elegant sensitivity creates a wonderful atmosphere, with a splendidly spooky section from 2:07.

To close we are given Ravel's Boléro, which is not unknown in versions for organ. There’s one for four-handed organ by Beatrice-Maria and Gerhard Weinberger on the Christophorus label which is pretty spectacular and almost identical in duration to Idenstam’s. Gunnar Idenstam is happy to add some little extra inflections to the repetitions of the melody, occasionally giving a little jazzy slide or some extra ornament as if he were playing it through bagpipes. The climax is vast and impressive as you would expect, and if nothing else you can have this CD on hand for a decent workout of your sound system.

Whether you relish the idea of this selection of French works brought into the realms of the organ is up to you. If not then this may not change your mind, but if there is anyone who just might be able to perform this feat then Gunnar Idenstam is your man. The combination of expert transcription, playing and a spectacular SACD recording is one which is always hard to resist. This, without doubt, is a demonstration disc which also satisfies on musical terms.

Dominy Clements

Masterwork Index: La mer