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Aleksander TANSMAN (1897-1986)
Passacaglia & Fugue [14:41]
Deux Pièces hébraïques [9:47]
Fugue [6:47]
Tadeusz MAJERSKI (1888-1963)
Four Organ Pieces [7:40]
Jerzy FITELBERG (1903-1951)
Suite for Organ [29:35]
Karol RATHAUS (1895-1954)
Praeludium und Toccata, Op.32 [13:02]
Stanislaw Diwiszek (organ)
rec. 2018, Church of the Holy Family from Nazareth, Lublin, Poland

Organists have generally become so fixated on the French repertory of the late 19th/ early 20th centuries and on the north Germany repertory of the 17th and 18th centuries, that all else seems to have taken a back seat. Occasionally British organists trot out on disc 18th or 20th century music from their own land, and those of a more specialist bent head towards the French repertory of the 18th century. But recordings of music from any other country or any other age are rare indeed. And that is to our loss, for whenever recordings open our ears to music outside the normal run of repertory we feel we are in the presence of something very unusual indeed. That’s certainly the case here with this disc devoted to Polish organ music from the first half of the 20th century.

An interesting observation, given in the basic description on the rear of the CD case, is that these Polish composers had in common “Jewish roots”, and this, it seems, encouraged them to explore “the sound and capability of the organ”. As a result, none of the pieces shows any connection with the kind of Christian-based organ music which has dominated the repertory since the 18th century, and only one pays distant, and largely disguised, homage to Christian music.

Three of the composers, at least, will be largely unfamiliar to readers, while the exception - Alexandre Tansman - is more usually thought of as a French composer. He moved to Paris in 1919 and settled there for the remainder of his life, but his early years were spent in Poland where he studied in his native Lódź, and attended Warsaw University as a student of law. It was the winning of a composer’s competition the year after his graduation that encouraged him to move to France and concentrate on composition. While the work-list in Grove makes no mention of any organ works by Tansman, there are three included here which are authentic organ works. The mighty Passacaglia and Fugue, which inhabits broadly romantic stylistic ground spiced up by some thickly chromatic, at times frighteningly Reger-esque, harmonies, dates from around 1944. It’s a heavyweight work and not one for the faint-hearted, specially given this fulsome recording on a substantial three-manual Carl Schuster organ of the Holy Family from Nazareth Church in Lublin.

Tasman’s fascination with Hebrew melodies found an outlet in the Deux Pièces hébraïques of 1956. Written for piano or organ, this organ version includes registrations the composer himself suggested in the original manuscript. The first of the pieces, “Invention”, has a somewhat mysterious, exotic feel to it, with distant, sliding chromatic harmonies and an exploration of some of the organ’s more remote colours, while the second, “Berceuse juivre”, while effectively beginning where the earlier one left off, introduces a typically Hebrew melody which floats in to the texture most effectively as if through a swirling cloud. The instrument itself dates from around the same time as this work, and probably makes a thoroughly authentic sound; it is certainly one which seems ideally suited to this thickly coloured writing.

The third Tansman piece dates from 1972 and was, according to the very extensive and informative booklet notes, the last organ work he composed. It is an austere Fugue the subject of which moves unexpectedly across a wide range of unrelated pitches creating an unpredictable musical texture in which the booklet note suggests, “phrases and articulations” are the principle concern. Quite what that means is beyond me, but given this rich-sounding organ recorded in a very opulent acoustic, the overall effect is an intricately-woven tapestry of ponderous aural effects. Stanislaw Diwiszek deserves some sort of medal for unravelling such complex music and making it, at least partly, comprehensible on the ear.

Tadeusz Majerski studied for a time in Leipzig, but spent most of his life teaching the piano in his native Lvov. As a composer, we read that he was “one of the first Polish dodecaphonists”, but this is not in any way apparent from these four Organ Pieces, which are richly romantic, often dramatic and draw on the full resources of a large instrument. They date from 1952, were never published, and were resurrected from the original manuscripts for this recording. The first (without a heading) is by way of a powerful introduction, leading into a quasi-impressionist “Allegro ma non troppo”, a berceuse-like “Andante ma non troppo”, and finally a boisterous “Allegretto” which sounds quite magnificent in this opulent acoustic setting and on this very weighty instrument.

Son of the conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg, Warsaw-born Jerzy Fitelberg also studied for a time in Germany, and lived in both Paris and New York. His Suite, dating from 1946 and his only organ work, opens with a haunting Prelude based on the Kyrie eleison from two Gregorian Masses (De Angelis and Orbis Factor) bringing the only obviously ecclesiastical element to this otherwise wholly secular programme. The second movement is apparently a set of variations on an original theme by the composer, but it mostly comes across as a rambling exposition of organ sound with little clear sense of shape, outline or tonality. There are some effective moments (ie. 3:57 where a momentary feeling of calm descends) but one suspects the heavy hand of an editor would have greatly benefitted this work. The Suite ends with an even more perplexing and convoluted Finale, which returns to the Gregorian themes of the first movement.

Karol Rathaus was actually born in Tarnopol, now in the Ukraine. He studied in Vienna and Berlin, taught in Paris and London, and finally settled in New York where he achieved some fame as a film music composer and lived for the last 15 years of his life. The Praeludium und Toccata despite its German title, was written during the time when Rathaus was teaching in Paris, and while it shows some Germanic tendencies (Rathaus’s first published work was a set of Variations on a theme by Reger) it is clearly influenced by the French organ school, with its toccata-like passagework and use of figurations, registration devices and harmonic ideas typical of the post-Vierne composers.

If nothing else, this disc shows that there is a distinct Polish school of organ compositions, which, largely due to politico-historical issues, has never really been put out into the public domain. Stanislaw Diwiszek has clearly worked hard to unearth these pieces and get them into a performance- ready state, and in choosing this particular instrument, places them in a fine setting. The only thing really missing is the occasional moment of light relief to sugar the pill of what is, at heart, some pretty daunting musical canvasses.

Marc Rochester

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