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
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
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
, 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
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
Masterwork Index: La mer