Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Etude-Tableau, Op. 39 No. 9 [4.21]
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 [20.26]
Fugue (1891) [3.30]
Prelude in B major, Op. 32 No. 11 [2.28]
Vocalise, Op. 34 No. 14 (transcribed by Nigel Potts) [6.11]
Symphonic Dances, Op. 45 [39:44]
Jeremy Filsell (organ)
rec. 2012, Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, Philadelphia.

A virtuoso on both piano and organ, Jeremy Filsell has already recorded a Rachmaninov programme on Signum Classics as a pianist (SIGCD230). In transcribing and performing the piano works in this programme on organ, Filsell points to the intrinsic compositional quality as well as the pianistic nature of Rachmaninov’s work: “The pacing of climax, the gift for melody, the tautness of large-scale structure and the often rhythmically-driven contrapuntal brilliance make for a heady and compelling mix. It is such characteristics which perhaps have justified his music’s frequent translation to other media.” With a lifelong love of the Symphonic Dances as a catalyst for these “organistic re-imaginings”, Filsell outlines his approach and the music itself in his booklet notes.

Filsell is recorded here on the mighty Dobson Op. 76 in Verizon Hall, in Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, which is America’s largest mechanical action concert hall organ. As you might expect, this instrument has a depth and variety of sound which holds plenty of interest, and the by no means overly-resonant acoustic means that details in the more densely written or rhythmically music are preserved. The recording also maintains a respectful distance, so the balance errs more toward the musical than the outright spectacular. Don’t expect the reedy pungency of a French organ or the subtlety of colour in a good German instrument, but while I admit to noit being a big fan of huge American organs this one manages to avoid being too woolly. Filsell proves the nimble nature of the beast in the opening Etude-Tableau, Op. 39 No.9, which has plenty of impact. The Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 are also a clear showcase for both instrument and performer, the relatively quick succession of miniatures each given contrasting character and exploring delicate upper registers as well as massive climactic moments. The general effect reminds me a little of something the genre of variations by Dupré.

The sprightly early Fugue is a shoe-in for the organ and sounds as good here as you will hear it anywhere. Filsell himself admits that both the Prelude and Vocalise serve “more as amuse-bouche than anything else”, though we all like a little of this kind of thing, and the shorter pieces and high degree of familiarity in the Vocalise – played here with a little more rubato surging than I like – make for good balance in the programme.

Symphonic Dances is the main work here, but I was wrong-footed a little by rhythmic quirks which lengthen gaps and see an anticipation of that first main ostinato to the main theme after the short introduction in the first movement Non allegro. Things subsequently settle down however, and this is also all part of re-acquainting oneself with a work as familiar in piano versions as it is from an orcherstra. Filsell hasn’t tried to recreate an orchestral sound, and this version is actually quite distinctive in its restraint for the most part. “I have attempted to imagine the colours Rachmaninov might have envisaged, had he been writing for the organ, and have tried to retain the performer’s ability to maintain momentum and energy, without having to mimic the infinite variations of orchestral colour.” In this Filsell succeeds in communicating the score without overblown effects and the stodge which can come through over-use of the heavier organ stops. He is excellent in creating contrast, lightness of touch, and indeed drama where the music demands this, but even in the final movement you can spot genuinely loud moments like rare yellow poppies in a large field bounteous with a variety of wild flowers. This is of course still show-stopping stuff on occasion, and hi-fi buffs with big woofers will find much to enjoy with the volume turned up, but the real satisfaction is in Rachmaninov’s remarkable music, with all of its spectral darkness and surprising radiance. I doubt there are many who would make this their all-time favourite version of this piece, but Jeremy Filsell convinces in making it sound as if it has indeed been written for the organ, and you can’t expect or demand much more than that.

Dominy Clements

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