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REVIEW
RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 [9:32]
Pastorale in F major, BWV 590 [12:36]
Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major, BWV 552 [15:51]
Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582 [14:48]
Prelude and Fugue in G major, BWV 541 [7:18]
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532 [10:46]
Pièce d’Orgue (Fantasie in G major), BWV 572 [8:59]
Philip GLASS (b. 1937)
Dance No. 4 (1979) [17:52]
Mad Rush (1979) [15:15]
Music in Contrary Motion (1969) [8:54]
Satyagraha, Act III – Conclusion (1980, arr. Michael Riesmann) [9:22]
Dance No. 2 (1979) [28:54]
Iveta Apkalna (organ)
rec. 2013, Klais Organ, Himmerod Abbey.
OEHMS CLASSICS OC1827 [79:58 + 80:21]

This release is a bit special for a number of reasons, but the first of these is outlined in a preface by Dieter Oehms, founder of the Oehms Classics label. His anecdotes about visiting Himmerod monastery as a child are the perfect way to introduce the building as it was before its restoration between 1952 and 1960. The Oehms family includes generations of organ builders, and this instrument therefore has a prominent position with the label. This release also celebrates Dieter Oehms’ “50 Years in the Music Sector”.

Latvian organist Iveta Apkalna already has some distinguished recordings under her belt, is winner of prestigious awards and has a busy international performing career. Her previous album for Oehms Classics is a French programme with some pretty commercial repertoire, stating with Widor’s ubiquitous Toccata and ending with Fauré’s Pavane. Apkalna’s Bach opens with a monumentally impressive Toccata and Fugue in D minor, which introduces us both to the fine sonorities of the Klais organ and the huge Himmerod acoustic. After that grand opening Apkalna moves the music along with a swift energy, delivering a pretty spectacular performance. There are so many recordings of Bach’s organ works around that I’m not going to get into comparisons here. I think we can be pretty sure Bach himself would have approved, once he’d recovered his wig and stockings.

Cases are made for the selection of these pieces in terms of minimalistic techniques, though this argument can be applied to a great deal of Baroque music. The pedal tones at the start of the Pastorale BWV 590 for instance, and the repetitive pattern of the Passacaglia BWV 582. These are all familiar techniques and forms of course, and Apkalna is by no means adapting her performances to emphasise Bach’s position in musical history as a proto- minimalist. These are all extremely fine performances made in a superb location, and we are invited to listen with new ears. The Prelude and Fugue in E-flat major BWV 552 is another impressive performance, the speed of the Prelude just pushing the boundaries between clarity and interference from the acoustic. The organ is superbly captured in these recordings, but you can hear where a touch more speed or a half-metre distance extra from the microphones and the whole thing could end up in the soup. As it is the results are very fine indeed, with plenty of atmosphere to put us right into the Himmerod Abbey Church environment, as well as filling our speakers with fabulously deep and detailed organ sonics.

Rounding up the rest of the repertoire, the Passacaglia BWV 582 sounds as good here as I’ve heard it anywhere, the descending lines above that ground bass at time sounding like a breathtaking icy aurora. The Prelude and Fugue in G major BWV 541 is meaty and ebullient, as is BWV 532 with its added drama and feeling of freedom and fantasy. The final Pièce d’Orgue is, like BWV 565 prized in this context for its monodic opening, as well as for its strong tonal fields and that remarkable arpeggio section towards the end which closes chapter one of this release in a genuinely thrilling fashion.

The last time I came across Philip Glass’s organ works was on Kevin Bowyer’s Nimbus album (see review) which was already certainly a big improvement on the composer’s now rather cheesy sounding original Dance recordings. Apkalna really blows us away with a spectacular Dance No. 4 and in a sound which really will remove the cobwebs from all of your cornices. Like Pharrell Williams’s ‘Happy’ this is something which will perk you up no end to start with but will probably end up driving you up the wall. There is however no better way to climb a wall than here and it really is worth waiting for those cadence variations towards the end. Mad Rush was written for the first visit of the Dalai Lama to the USA in 1979. Despite the rapid fingerwork demanded this piece confounds its own title to deliver something rather more meditative than you might expect. Music in Contrary Motion does pretty much what it says on the tin, although the combination of the rich acoustic and the rapid movement of the notes turn this into more of a shifting colour pattern than chasing lines in this version. Act 3 from the under-rated opera Satyagraha is always nice to hear, building nicely and with elegant phrasing from Apkalna. At nearly a half-hour, Dance No. 2 is something of an assault-course and doesn’t really hold enough musical interest to keep me involved for long, but as the quote from theatre director Peter Sellars aptly concludes, “it’s a bit like a train journey all the way across America; when you look out of the window, it seems like nothing changes for hours…”

The booklet notes propose that “to listen to Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ works in the context of the music of Phil Glass has something incredibly refreshing about it”, but separating the two composers between these two CDs is in my view something of a cop-out. I can understand why it has been done this way, but if you play around with the tracks and put Glass right up against Bach then the thing really does take on a life of its own. Almost at random try just alternating discs, starting with Glass’s Dance No. 4, followed by BWV 565, then Mad Rush, BWV 590, Music in Contrary Motion, BWV 552 and so on – you’ll soon hear how that ‘context’ can really mix things up, and that the worlds of the 17th and 20th centuries have plenty to say to each other without being separated onto the gatefolded islands we have here.

All of this said this has to be one of my top organ releases of the year, from the tremendous virtuosity and impressive musicality of the playing to the remarkable quality of the recording. At around 80 minutes for each CD there can be no complaints about duration/value for money with this package. With a historical text and full documentation for the Klais organ in its new 2006 disposition there is plenty for the buffs as well the audiophiles, general fans and other casual fauna who happen to be within earshot and immediately fall under Iveta Apkalna’s spell.

Dominy Clements
 





 




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