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Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
The Complete Organ Works - Volume 13

Three Pastels, Op. 92 [21:01]
Music for Organ, Op. 145 [27:02]
Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H, Op. 150 [22:35]
Stefan Engels (organ)
rec. 7-6 September 2015, Michaeliskirche, Hamburg
PRIORY PRCD1134 [71:18]

Stefan Engels has now reached volume 13 of his continuing series of the complete organ works by Sigfrid Karg-Elert for Priory. Volume one appeaed way back in 2005. Engels’s task is pretty daunting by anyone’s standards. It is made all the more complicated by the huge range of Karg-Elert’s output, the large number of works written for harmonium which have established firm footholds in the organ repertory, and the numerous pieces in which the organ is used in an ensemble described, as often as not, as “ad lib”. This volume does not venture into such murky territory, but features three substantial works including what is probably Karg-Elert’s most often performed—and recorded—major organ solo work, the hefty Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H.
By this stage, anyone who is interested in Karg-Elert’s music will have latched on to this series, while those who have earlier dipped their toes in the Karg-Elert water, as it were, will have either lost all interest or become utterly obsessed with this often weird sound world. It juxtaposes extraordinarily lush harmonies with acerbic chromaticism, forms and genres strictly modelled on the music of the great Lutheran organists with Impressionistic soundscapes, and huge rambling edifices with tiny little perfectly-formed self-contained miniatures. Yes, Karg-Elert is a composer full of contradictions and surprises and, above all, amazing idiosyncrasies.

This disc by no means provides an easy or readily accessible introduction for the Karg-Elert novice, yet it does take us through some of his more singular characteristics as a composer for organ. These three works present monumentally challenging edifices to the listener with their circuitous musical ideas, chromaticism which is often laid on with a trowel and textures so thick that they become oppressive. But more significantly than any of that, they reveal perhaps Karg-Elert’s greatest single gift; a highly individual and original sense of organ colour which means that, even when the music itself has long mired itself in stagnant invention, there is still plenty of interest in the sheer noise it makes.

There are also some pretty blatant bursts of virtuoso display which are in themselves so brilliantly delivered here that they take our minds off the sometimes tortuous musical arguments. Typical of this is the final piece (Solfeggio e Ricercare) from the tripartite Music for Organ of 1936. It may attempt to revisit the discipline of “a strict formal polyphony”, to quote from the extraordinarily extensive and often rather thickly technical notes in the 34-page, English language only, booklet. It is, however, all too often tempted away from the course of elevated musical thought by an essentially earthy desire to show off. Luckily Engels is a dazzling virtuoso who throws off these bursts of outrageous exhibitionism with wonderful panache while never really losing sight of Karg-Elert’s complex musical ideas.

Engels is not just a brilliant virtuoso player, but also a supreme master of registration. And in the massive organ of the church of St Michaelis, Hamburg, he has found more registration opportunities than most organists encounter in a lifetime. This extraordinary instrument is actually three totally separate organs (a Steinmeyer of 1962, a Marcussen of 1914 and a Klais of 2009) all playable from a single central console. As the equally enormous booklet note on the organ tells us, this provides the player with nine manual and three pedal divisions, all accessible from a single five-keyboard console, offering “undreamt-of combinations, which are only available on very few organ systems”. It rightly describes this as an “organ complex”.

What such a vast array of combinations means is that even when this music delves into the darkest of textural jungles, there are so many intriguing sounds reaching the ear that one is never for a moment bored. The sheer surprise of hearing an organ suddenly make a sound like tinkling wine glasses (9:35) makes us forget that by this stage in the Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H. Karg-Elert has so seriously lost the plot that he seemed in danger of never getting back. And at 6:36 in the Canzona second movement of Op. 145, there is the unexpected appearance of a decidedly theatrical reed (cinematic might be a better word in the context of organ tone) warbling away partnered by its tremulant and surrounded by the most delicate of flutes. It makes us forget quite what a dreary piece of music this is. And as for the tremendous sounds that Engels draws from this astonishing organ complex for the Impressionist-by-name-but-not-by-nature Pastels of Op. 92, these on their own provide enough enticements to the ears that one can suspend musical disbelief as the notes pass by in an ever-increasingly bizarre melee.

It is likely that the Passacaglia and Fugue on B.A.C.H. will lure at least some to this disc; I cannot really imagine anyone deliberately seeking out the other works other than in a perverse desire to get hold of everything Karg-Elert wrote for the organ. And I would unreservedly recommend this performance over most of the others. In some way Christopher Herrick on his Organ Fireworks Vol. 12 disc (Hyperion CDA67612) offers the more musically driven interpretation, but despite the wonders of the Haderslev Marcussen he plays, it is no match for this incredible Hamburg instrument. And Engels himself seems so deeply imbued with the idiom of Karg-Elert that this latest Priory release has about it the stamp of true authority.

Marc Rochester



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