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Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Sigfrid’s Unbeaten Tracks
Portraits, Op.101:
No.12; Quasi Concertino per Clarinetto solo (Alla Weber) [4:13]
No.14; Impromptu Interrompu (Alla Chopin) [6:02]
No.18; Vorspiel zu einem Drama (Alla R Wagner) [7:12]
No.20; Frauengunst (Alla J. Strauss) [2:54]
No.19; Duetto d’amore (Alla Verdi) [4:34]
No.25; Am Hardanger Fjord (Alla Grieg) [3:28]
Second Sonata, Op.46 [41:49]
Graham Barber (organ)
rec. 2018, Paulskirche, Ulm, Germany
FUGUE STATE RECORDS FSRCD016 [70:53]

For a composer so obsessed with organ colour – his organ scores are littered with highly detailed registration directions demanding very specific sounds – it seems quite out of character that one of his largest single works for solo instrument was actually written for the harmonium. Without wishing to cause any offense to harmoniumistes, I have to admit that, of the many fine qualities to be found (I am assured) in harmoniums, a broad range of colours is not one of them. Indeed, I have long since come to the conclusion that, no matter what the label is on the stop knob you pull out on even the most generously-endowed harmoniums, they all make the same sound – a kind of insipid, wheezing, reedy groan. The French description of the instrument as expressif seems to refer only to the fact that, usually by spreading your knees wide, you can make it louder. Non-organist composers – Schoenberg, Richard Strauss, and Rossini among the more notable – used the instrument as a single tone-colour presence in ensembles, and French organist-composers – notably Vierne, Franck, and Guilmant – added substantially to its repertory with music which was for the most part, small-scale and intimate. Despite the best endeavours of a handful of passionate promoters, the harmonium has never really established itself as anything other than a cheap and portable alternative to the organ in pre-electronic instrument days, and its list of stops and generally ornate appearance seems designed fool the unwary into a belief that, as it looks like an organ, it can stand as a credible aural substitute to one.

Karg-Elert as a man had many faults, but he was no fool when it came to understanding instruments; so clearly, he saw something in the harmonium which has eluded almost everyone else. That said, Graham Barber has transcribed for grand organ the massive Second Sonata from its original scoring for harmonium. Despite the slightly reedy sound of the Link/Gaida instrument in the Paulskirche in Ulm (which does, on occasions, produce a strangely harmonium-esque sound) this makes for such a powerfully convincing organ work, that I really wonder whether Karg-Elert might not have been a little the worse for alcoholic beverage when he designed the Sonata for the harmonium.

The huge opening movement is probably better known in Karg-Elert’s own transcription for organ, published posthumously as the Passacaglia & Fugue on BACH, Op.150. Despite Barber’s own booklet note seriously questioning the integrity of the Op.150 work as it appeared in print, it is difficult not to hear in that work the authentic stamp of Karg-Elert’s organ style. With its thundering pedal statement of the BACH motiv setting in motion a mind-boggling virtuoso tour-de-force through the colours of the Ulm organ, Barber’s transcription of the Op.46 first movement is every bit as much a powerful organ work as the Op.150 version. Barber’s dazzling technical command of the work’s daunting demands as well as his masterly handling of the organ’s full resources quickly expunges any hint that this may have once been intended for the thin, reedy, colourless tones of a harmonium. The second movement, tiny by comparison (it barely stretches to 10 minutes), is also familiar from Karg-Elert’s organ output, for it, too, is better-known in the composer’s own version for grand organ, published as the Canzone, Op.46b. The final movement is a Toccata which, at the start, reveals a little-known side to Karg-Elert’s style; it is airy, buoyant and almost Vierne-like in its occasional impressionistic episodes. Thick chromaticism and those hallmark piled-on richly filled-out chords re-emerge as the movement brings back ideas from the previous two movements to end with a delightfully little chirrupy flute and a bit of harmonium-like four-square harmony.

Invidious as it may seem to compare Karg-Elert with other composers, the six movements from Portrait, invite such comparisons, since each is claimed to be in the style of various other composers. I look in vain for evidence of Weber, Chopin, Wagner and Verdi, Strauss is hinted at only in the sense that the Frauengunst is a Waltz, but Grieg is there for all to hear in a blatantly obvious pastiche complete with drone, folksy-fifths, and tiny, delicately ornamented melodic phrases, which offer no potential for development so thrive on repetition. But, on their own terms, these are six delightful miniatures which show off the organ well but, more than that, reveal Barber’s clear love of Karg-Elert’s music. These are all superb performances, technically stunning and gloriously fluid in their coloristic properties.

Marc Rochester



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