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Improvisations for Two Organs in the Catedral Metropolitana, Mexico City
Inertia [3:30]
Crossing the Unknown [8:39]
Torrent [2:46]
Impact I [5:31]
Valadores [2:22]
Ritual [5:52]
Fire Planet [3:39]
Impact II [5:24]
For J-P.L [4:34]
Pasaje [10:44]
Flowers Beyond the Unknown [7:08]
Jürgen Essl (Gospel Organ)
Jeremy Joseph (Epistle Organ)
rec. 2018, Catedral Metropolitana, Mexico City
Reviewed in stereo and 3D binaural.

Cybele Records founder and recording engineer Ingo Schmidt-Lucas had not long returned from Mexico City when we met to discuss binaural recording and headphone reproduction in The Hague, at the same time listening to the new Berlioz/Wagner CD from HD-Klassik (review). He had this recording from the Catedral Metropolitana fizzing with freshness in his little black box and, knowing my enthusiasm for previous historic organ recordings from Cybele, I was lucky to be one of the first people in Europe to hear some brief extracts of this release.

Mexico City’s Metropolitan Cathedral is a vast edifice and you would expect it to have a substantial organ. That it has two such magnificent instruments is very much to our good fortune in this stunning recording. On the left there is the Gospel Organ by Joseph Francisco Nassarre Cimorra (1701-1737), and this is twinned with the Epistle Organ on the right, started by Jorge de Sesma (ca. 1660-1690), completed in 1695 and repaired, rebuilt and converted by Nassarre in the 1730s. The mirror-image effect of these two instruments can be glimpsed on the cover of this release, and there are more photographs and the usual listing of registrations in the booklet.

Jürgen Essl and Jeremy Joseph have been musical collaborators for many years, sharing an appreciation of early music and jazz and experimenting with just about any style you can think of. A certain amount is made of the musicians being unable to see each other, as they sit back to back. Good improvisers know that listening is at least as important as visual contact, unless of course you are working to signs agreed in advance, which is not the way these musicians work. Complementary or contrasting registrations are agreed on, but the rest is a response to what the other player does, and these two organists do this very well indeed. They use conventional and unconventional techniques with these historic instruments, such as the kind of slow stop actions Keith Jarrett used in his Hymns and Spheres album on ECM that can create microtones and glissandi, but even with these sorts of effects the music here focusses very much on substance rather than artifice or peripheral ornament.

The first thing you hear from this recording is a waft of ambience, the large space of the cathedral filled with anticipatory air from the organs and beyond. There are also the mechanical noises of the instruments as registers are shifted in more sustained pieces like Crossing the Unknown, but this is all part of the experience. As far as I’m concerned everything is wonderful here, but the first killer piece is the theatrical Impact I, in which a gently authentic sounding 18th century style chorale plays against at first birdsong-like interjections, passing through a stormy middle section and then filtering out towards a deathly conclusion, the apparitions of past and present in flight, never to return.

There are some longer works, but I was happy to see relatively compact timings for many of the pieces here. The temptation to wallow for long periods in potent but static resonance has to be resisted, but here there are always ideas carrying us onwards, the recorder-like solo that speaks out in Ritual for instance, the second half of which is quite magical. Reverential waiting around between pieces is also avoided at times, the energetic textures of Fire Planet following on from Ritual for instance as if it were the next movement in a larger structure. Reading the titles there almost appears to be a kind of narrative form in the choice of programme order, though this may just be my imagination and in any case is something that can be ignored or filled in entirely by the listener.

Impact II is another collision of styles, this time with a more romantic ongoing musical thread over which the Epistle Organ argues boisterously, the distant echo pipes creating a striking effect of distance – a kind of struggle going on beyond the parapets. We don’t get to find out who or what the dedicatee is of For J-P.L but this is a pretty monumental piece that in a way prepares the ground for Pasaje, the longest here by a fair margin. The blending of sonorities between the two organs is exploited to excellent effect here, but even with a slow harmonic rhythm the music is active and restless, with all kinds of things going on both near and far. Around eight minutes in the organs are for instance transformed into a skirl of bagpipes that inspire some heroic gestures, the final minute adding the tinkle of bells as we’re rescued and left to ruminate in a clockmaker’s garden – the departing resonance of which is alas clipped just a moment too soon. Flowers Beyond the Unknown almost has the feel of a notated work, such is the clarity of its material. There is an entirely natural but odd noise to your right from 1:41 in this track which I’d noticed elsewhere but is best heard here – an odd wheezing which becomes increasingly like an asthmatic cat stuck somewhere amongst the organ pipes – no doubt an effect arising from the bellows.

Recording quality for this release is quite simply stunning, and the environment and position of the two organs is tailor-made for specialist spatial recording techniques. It sounds superb in any of the offered layers on the disc: 5.1 multichannel, SACD stereo, standard CD stereo, and my favourite, 3D binaural for headphones. This last option really takes you into a very special place, opening up the acoustic to quite remarkable effect and, if it were possible, making the music even more alive and involving.

Dominy Clements



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