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Gunnar IDENSTAM (b. 1961)
Metal Angel (2013-2019)
Suite I [24:00]
Suite II [20:02]
Suite III [27:07]
Gunnar Idenstam (organ of Monaco Cathedral)
Rec on 4-7 February 2020 in the Cathédrale de Notre-Dame-Immaculée, Monaco.
First Recording

Gunnar Idenstam is a versatile person: organ virtuoso, composer, arranger and folk musician. He is also a cross-over artist who likes – or finds it necessary – to stretch the borders between genres. More than a decade ago I reviewed a disc with Christmas music, where he combined and juxtaposed old Christmas songs and hymns – some of them dating from early Baroque and even Renaissance – with traditional folk fiddling and –singing and newly written arrangements for choir and instruments; and where the organ played a central part. It is a fascinating disc which has lost none of its appeal during the intervening years. I urge readers to follow the link and get an idea of Idenstam’s creativity. Even better is to get the disc – now that the festive period is approaching.

The disc now under scrutiny is however a quite different affair. The title, Metal Angel, may give associations to both religious motives and hard rock – and that is exactly what this disc is about. As Idenstam says in his liner notes: “The title refers both to the metal genre of rock music and to the organ, with its metal pipes and angel-like shape.” Idenstam has always had “a distant love relationship” with folk music generally and symphonic rock of the 1970s and here he “builds bridges” between French cathedral tradition, symphonic rock and Swedish folk-music.

Metal Angel is a collection of eighteen pieces and a Symphonic Sonata, fifteen of which are recorded here. Each piece is associated with a different angel in a fantasy Gothic landscape. They are here divided in three suites with five pieces in each, but, as he points of in his notes, “it is my hope that other organists coming to this music will make their own selection from all nineteen pieces and present them as they see fit”.

Idenstam has, after his studies at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, also studied the French tradition in Paris with Marie-Claire Alain and Jacques Taddei, so there is no wonder that one can trace influences from the likes of Vierne and Widor. Idenstam provides detailed descriptions of each piece, and these are no doubt the visions he experienced during his creative work. But the pictures are often diffuse and urge him to question what he sees: Am I seeing stones or creatures? What happens next? Who has the answer? Are there really any answers to the mysteries of life? Am I still alive or am I dead? We are in fact in for an existential journey through life – and it is a fascinating journey, where the answers are up to the individual traveller. It is also fully relevant to ignore the “programme” and just wallow in the sonorities and the rhythms. Rhythms is the key word here. And Idenstam admits this: “When my music comes to me, it usually starts with a beat and a rhythm, and then the structures and the harmonies gradually develop.”

With the magnificent instrument at the Monaco Cathedral at his disposal Idenstam has all the possibilities in the world to wring the utmost of power and sonorities out of the music. Only the limitations of my audio equipment and a listening room that is dimensioned more for chamber music than full-scale organ outbursts could moderate my enthusiasm – but only a fraction. The rumbling deep bass of the Introduction, the insistent, merciless knock-out rhythms, the fragmentized melodic material and a magisterial accumulation of power is overwhelming. The hard rock of the 1970s was never my cup of tea but here, when it has been ennobled by the queen of instruments, I was totally engrossed.

And there are several movements that deliver such almost physical exhilaration, while others are melodious and beautiful and harmonically enticing. As is Idenstam’s wont the melodies, fragmentary or not, are either traditional Scandinavian folk tunes or inspired by folk tunes. The combination of hard-hitting rock rhythms and often frail fiddle tunes is perspective-building. Some of the pieces went directly to my heart, like the opening number of Suite II, Angel’s Theme (tr. 6) and the light Polina’s Song (tr. 11) and Golden Angel (tr. 12) , both from Suite III, but the wild Black Angel (tr. 14), where the organ roars threateningly, is also a piece to savour for quite different reasons: I can’t resist quoting Idenstam’s description: “The strong, the black, the dangerous. The Archangel’s black equivalent. Pulling my soul. Pulling our souls. He cheats. He is smart. He wants to conquer all the Earth. He wants the destruction of Earth. Apocalypse. He punches like a giant hammer. Triumphant.” If this sounds thrilling and tempting – if not exactly edifying – this is a disc for you. If it doesn’t there are many other pieces with a completely different message. Broadminded organ lovers are advised to invest in this larger-than-life adventure!

Göran Forsling

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