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A Russian Journey
Cesar CUI (1835-1918)
Prelude in g minor [3:02]
Prelude in a-flat minor [4:05]
Sergei LYAPUNOV (1859-1924)
Prelude pastoral, Op.54 [9:26]
Alexander GLAZUNOV (1865-1936)
Prelude and fugue in d minor, Op.98 [8:36]
Sergei SLONIMSKI (b.1932)
Toccata [4:12]
Alexander SHAVERSASCHVILI (1919-2003)
Prelude [3:45]
Fugue [3:44]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Night on Bald Mountain [14:07]
Gail Archer (53 rank Schlicker organ)
rec. St Joseph Church, Macon, USA, 2016
MEYER MEDIA LLC MM17035 [58:11]

Those whose experience of the organ is mainly confined to Bach’s magnificent Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 or Saint SaŽns’ Organ Symphony would find this disc of great interest as it shows the ‘King of instruments’ in a calm and peaceful mode (with the exception of the final item). That also goes for organ aficionados since it introduces the listener to organ repertoire rarely heard outside Russia. Gail Archer, whose eighth disc this is, has found some really interesting pieces to populate her disc. She begins with two pieces by Cesar Cui, the least well known of the so-called ‘mighty handful’, Balakirev, Borodin, Cesar Cui, Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky who had it as a goal to turn their back on influence from western Europe in order to create a truly ‘Russian’ music in much the same way that people like Aaron Copland wanted to do for American music. Cui had an interesting background, being the youngest of five children born in Vilnius, Lithuania to a French father who had entered the country as part of Napoleon’s army and stayed, marrying a local woman. Cui junior went into the Tsar’s army and became an expert in fortifications, a skill learned from his experiences in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878; he became Engineer General and it is hard to imagine how he had the spare time to become a prolific composer who, despite his professorship in engineering and the writing of text books that became standard, is today far better known as a composer. These two short works are wonderfully lyrical, with songlike qualities which stay in the memory, demanding repeated listening; the organ can make tunes sound mellifluous at times and these are prime examples of that.

Liapunov, son of a mathematician and astronomer was a student of Cui and Mussorgsky, (the latter studied under Cui, Balakirev and Dargomyzhsky), and is best remembered for his piano concerto. His Prelude pastoral shows an influence of Liszt due perhaps to his studies with Liszt’s pupil Karl Klindworth. A substantial work, it’s charming flowing lines belie its complexity.

Equally lengthy is Glazunov’s Prelude and fugue in d minor and once again it is a work that relies on charm rather than might, despite being mainly cast in the organ’s lower registers.

Sergei Slonimsky, nephew of Nicolai Slonimsky a well respected musicologist who made a successful career in the US, is an interesting composer of a newer generation than the others on the disc having been born in 1932. His Toccata is one of only two works he has written for organ. It is a beautifully tuneful piece with contrasting harmonies in two keys played by each hand at the same time, which evokes much humour as well as interest.

We know almost nothing about Alexander Shaversaschvili despite him dying as recently as 2003. From his name he was obviously Georgian which may account for the fascinating and unusual harmonies expressed in his Prelude and Fugue. He creates an air of mystery with the prelude while the fugue is an expression of that might the organ is so perfect an instrument for.

The final work in Gail Archer’s involving programme is Zsigmond Szathmary’s recent (2012) transcription of Mussorgsky’s Night on a Bare Mountain. I give the title as I have always known it, rather that the various versions such as Night on bare mountain, Night at the bare mountain or as given on the cover Night on Bald mountain, since I don’t think that it is the name of any specific mountain but rather that it is one that is simply devoid of vegetation and the Russian word used is only an adjective not a proper name. Incidentally there seems to be some confusion over the spellings of the composers in this issue since Gail Archer’s notes use the spelling as understood by English speaking people (apart from Liapunov with a ‘j’ rather than ‘ia’) while the disc cover uses the German use of the ‘w’ as ‘v’.

Additionally there is obviously some contention about the work itself and I quote this interesting passage from Wikipedia: “In 1886, five years after Mussorgsky's death, Rimsky-Korsakov published an arrangement of the work, described as a ‘fantasy for orchestra’. Some musical scholars consider this version to be an original composition of Rimsky-Korsakov, albeit one based on Mussorgsky's last version of the music, for The Fair at Sorochintsy: “ I need hardly remind the reader that the orchestral piece universally known as 'Mussorgsky’s Night on the Bare Mountain' is an orchestral composition by Rimsky-Korsakov based on the later version of theBare Mountainmusic which Mussorgsky prepared for Sorochintsy Fair (Gerald Abraham, musicologist and an authority on Mussorgsky, 1945)”.

I will leave that controversy without trying to add to it, because the music itself is powerful, exciting and suits the organ very well. Incidentally at an organ recital last week the organist had included the organ version, arranged by Arthur Wills (b.1926), of Pictures at an exhibition and the organist pointed out that there were parts which he considered better suited to the organ than the original version for piano. In this version of Night on a bare mountain the organ also manages to create an extremely engaging atmosphere dripping with menace and palpable fear. As always with arrangements you are able to hear the work afresh.

This disc makes it clear why Gail Archer’s recitals are so highly thought of and successful, for she creates a really rousing and exhilarating performance and with this disc introduces us to works that are rarely if ever programmed, showing that organists should look at these pieces with a view to including them in their recitals amongst the Bach, Vierne, Duprť and other staples of the organ repertoire. This is a must for organ lovers though it deserves a much wider audience still.

Steve Arloff



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