"Rachmaninov at the organ: an idea to incite the purist's horror?" Not my opinion but the opening words of organist Jeremy Filsell in his very informative liner-note to this disc. I start by mentioning the liner because it makes clear just how passionately Filsell has been an advocate of Rachmaninov's cause and how long he has wanted to transcribe the wonderful Symphonic Dances
for organ. Also, Filsell is one of the very few performers of international standard - at home both on the piano and in the organ loft. Worth remembering that he already has a well-received recording of Rachmaninov piano works (Signum SIGCD230) in his discography. Another important point Filsell makes was the necessity of finding the right instrument in the right location. Such is the complexity of Rachmaninov's writing that an organ with a sluggish response in a wallowing acoustic would counteract the efforts of even the most articulated playing. The Fred J Cooper Memorial organ at the Verizon Hall in Philadelphia seems ideal for this project and has been beautifully caught by the Signum engineers. Certainly the disc challenges any listener's preconceptions and prejudices about how effective such transcriptions could be.
Filsell presents an interesting and generous programme and most importantly of all proves himself a very fine interpreter of the composer regardless of the instrument or genre. The recital opens with the dynamic Etude-Tableau Op.39 No.9. Given that Filsell knows all these works well at the piano he is ideally placed to judge which would transfer best to the organ. Certainly this Etude-Tableau assumes an exciting Toccata-like quality which makes for an excellent curtain-raiser. It also sets out certain characteristics that will dictate for many their overall engagement with this recital. The mechanical reality of any organ - the instrument not the player - is that it is not possible to articulate the inner part-writing as rapidly as on a piano. Hence, all of the timings for the 'quick' pieces here are substantially slower than in standard piano performances. Filsell takes 4:21 for this Etude as opposed to about a minute quicker for all the other versions I know. The outer movements of the Dances are 13:15 and 16:29 here as opposed to 11:34 and 13:27 in the classic Ashkenazy/Previn recording on Decca. Timings alone are a flawed guide but I think there is a general indication of an imposed approach. That being said, Filsell is a very convincing guide so that when immersed in his vision of the works I could not say I had any sense of tempi feeling slow or passages dragging.
If the organ imposes certain limitations of tempo it does allow a far greater range of tonal colour through changes in registration. Filsell is particularly successful here in the substantial Variations on a theme of Corelli Op.42. In the liner he makes the very valid point that when Rachmaninov composed this work in 1931 he was looking to refine and thin his compositional textures - he even detects a neo-classical sensibility in his choice of Corelli as the thematic source. This clarification also works in favour of the organ and Filsell has made brilliantly appropriate choices in registration from the rather chaste baroque flute-like pipes of the opening theme through to the final exciting full organ climax [track 2 18:30]. The Signum liner includes a full organ specification which even to my far from expert ear is more obviously a concert than a church specification with its wider range of 'voices'. In many ways these Variations are the work that benefits most from the transcription process precisely because of the range of colour that can be introduced.
There are three more short pieces. The early 1891 fugue was a student exercise written while Rachmaninov was studying under Anton Arensky and Sergei Taneyev and is a minor work of interest because of the composer - it makes a logical choice for this recital and certainly sounds as effective as it ever has. As Filsell says is a "natural fit" for the organ. The famous Vocalise is one of the pieces by Rachmaninov I am least enamoured of. This is probably because of its ubiquity in a vast array of differing arrangements. In its original form or say the orchestral-accompanied version sung by an Anna Moffo
it is very beautiful. Here I find the arrangement - by Filsell's friend and colleague Nigel Potts - perfectly acceptable although the main climax is too over-wrought for the scale and nature of the work.
Which brings us to the main and concluding piece: the Symphonic Dances. Rather unusually this work had a nearly synchronous genesis as a work in both versions for two pianos and full orchestra. It is important to note that Filsell's is not
a transcription of either version but an original re-working for organ. His preference - if that is the right word - is for the keyboard version but bringing to bear the registrational extra colour the organ affords. Again, this is a very impressive achievement both in technical and interpretative terms. In such transcriptions there will always be some moments that engage one listener more than another but overall I like Filsell's choices. The only time I was not sure the organ transcription works is in the spectral waltz of the central dance. Rather bizarrely instead of having the ambience of a haunted ballroom it becomes a fairground - this is not the fault of the music or performance simply the combination of sound and music and unconscious association. The gain towards the end of the final dance is the effortless ability of an organ to pile climax on climax without any sense of strain. It is where Filsell adds carillons of bells - such an influence on much of Rachmaninov's writing that it is rather wonderful actually to hear some. He then rather spoils the very end for me by adding a curious upward swirl that has no provenance in either keyboard or orchestral versions.
Clearly, this disc is not
intended to supersede established versions or favourite performances of those versions. Treated in parallel with those it is greatly enjoyable, aided by the great care and skill of all involved from performer to technical team. I like the commitment Filsell shows in exploring this familiar repertoire in unfamiliar ways - on
you can see him perform the solo part of the Second Piano Concerto accompanied by Nigel Potts on organ. Perhaps I am too set in my ways but after repeated listenings my allegiance to the 'original' versions is unswayed certainly in the Dances but less so in the Variations.
Overall this is an excellent disc and greatly enjoyable for those who like their Rachmaninov with a twist.
Previous review: Dominy Clements