I first heard the lovely old organ of Espoo Cathedral when it was recorded for the very last time in 2009-2010 (review)
. Then, as now, it was played by Petri Koivusalo, the cathedral’s organist and director of their chamber choir. It seems fitting that he and his brother Mika, the man behind all these Fuga and Alba releases, jointly saw out the old and ushered in the new. The previous instrument, much modified over the years, was scheduled for further renovations but prohibitive costs meant an entirely new one was the more sensible option. The Finnish organ builders Veikko Vertanen began work on the organ in the autumn of 2011, and it was finally inaugurated on 3rd June 2012.
Listening to Petri and Mika’s first Espoo recording in preparation
for this review I was struck anew by the love and care they showed in
compiling that programme and recording it. Indeed, this time around
I surrendered even more willingly to the winsome sound of that old instrument;
also, I found Petri’s playing even more committed than I’d
remembered. This is no parish organist just busking his way through
the music with more enthusiasm than accuracy; dynamics are finely judged,
registrations are carefully chosen, and this recording is well up to
the high standards of Mika’s earlier ones.
Given my renewed affection for the first disc I approached the second
one with some trepidation. I had no qualms about the programme - even
though I would have to negotiate a large chunk of Bach - but I did wonder
how this modern instrument would sound in this venerable space. Well,
in the spirit of something old, something new the joyful tolling of
Oskar Merikanto’s Wedding Hymn
is the perfect opener. My
initial impression was that the new organ has greater heft and is more
secure and well rounded in its delivery. Its tone seems darker, more
‘woody’, than before, and some of the open-hearted character
of the old one has gone. That was inevitable, I suppose, but the good
news is that the gains far outweigh any perceived losses.
Make no mistake this is still a most beguiling sound, and the contrapuntal writing of the Bach pieces is as lively and articulate as it should be. However, the pedals’ oaken quality here is an acquired taste, and I yearned for something less attention-seeking. That’s a minor quibble, for Petri’s playing is always spontaneous and, despite all that Bach, it’s surprisingly varied too. The emphasis on the Lutheran hymn tune Ein feste burg ist unser Gott
(A mighty fortress is our God) is a nice touch, for it neatly underlines the cathedral’s enduring influence across the ages.
As for the wonderfully spacious, well-balanced recording it’s
everything we’ve come to expect from someone who is pre-eminent
in the field; whether one opts for the CD layer or to the Super Audio
one the sheer prowess of this production shines through. Listening to
the heartfelt loveliness of Brahms’s Herzlich tut mich verlangen
- so gracefully pitched, so naturally caught - confirms that the brothers’
priorities are all the right ones; the music always takes precedence
over self-seeking showmanship or empty spectacle, and that’s not
a given in such programmes.
Wilhelm Rudnick’s Allein Gott in der höh’
simple, understated, immersive - is a real find, and Petri brings out
the work’s quiet, devotional character in the most direct and
unaffected way. Goodness, this really is playing of sensitivity and
style, virtues that pretty much sum up the disc for me. After that intimacy
the Mendelssohn sonata has compensating breadth and brio, and Petri’s
own pieces add some bravura to the mix. Gregarious but not overblown,
there are moments of repose too; the celestial, bell-like tones of Herzlich
tut mich verlangen
, the second of his chorale suites, are utterly
captivating, and this time the pedals aren’t at all intrusive.
The last two items - the Nicolai-Liszt especially - are the kind of pieces that draw many to the ‘king of instruments’ in the first place. All too often such displays tend to degenerate into a fatiguing cacophony of sound, but thanks to judicious playing and a rock-solid, unexaggerated recording that’s never a problem here. In short, if you’re familiar with Mika’s methods you’ll know exactly what to expect from this most engaging collection.
The disc begins and ends in a mood of celebration, and how appropriate
in the context of this new - and rather magnificent - instrument. Any
reservations I may have had at the outset seem churlish in the face
of such splendour; factor in the brothers’ good liner-notes and
eye-catching photographs and you have a very desirable package indeed.
Quietly triumphant; a heartfelt homage to a fine cathedral and its new organ.