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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Coriolan, Op 62: Overture (Arr. by J. Doebber) [8:02]
Sextet in E-Flat Major, Op 81b (Arr. by A. Durand) [15:08]
Symphony No 7 in A Major, Op 92: II. Allegretto (Arr. by A. Reinhard) [8:43]
String Trio in D Major, Op 8 “Serenade” (Arr. by S. Karg-Elert) [23:33]
Piano Quintet in E-Flat Major, Op 16: II. Andante (Arr. by A. Méraux) [7:43] Zärtliche Liebe, WoO 123 Ich liebe Dich (Arr. by S. Karg-Elert) Olivier DRECHSEL (b. 1973) Dreaming of E, Op 46 (After Beethoven, Für Elise, WoO 59) [3:56] Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Symphony No 5 in C Minor, Op 67: I. Allegro con brio (Arr. by A. Reinhard) [6:32]
rec. 22-25 October 2018, Friedenskirche, Monnheim-Baumberg DISQUES VDE-GALLO CD-1621 [76:36]
According to the VDE-Gallo press release, the publication of this recording was aimed to coincide with Beethoven year in 2020, so no doubt with postal delays and heaven knows what else we are just a little late in uploading our review. When you think of the combination of harmonium and piano the Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle is the work most likely to spring to mind. With its dynamic and expressive flexibility the harmonium is well suited for creating orchestral effects, and the instrument chosen for this recording is an Alexandre from ca. 1880 which has bags of colour and character, and plenty of oomph to go up against the Steinway D that partners it here.
I have a particular affection for the harmonium, having spent many a happy hour in my youth torturing the instrument in our local church and including the things in contemporary music projects while a student in the 1980s, a period in which, if you had transport, you could pick up as many dusty and unloved relics for free as you had space for. Having also messed around on harmoniums at the museum in Saltaire and the Harmonium Museum Nederland I’ve acquired an ear for a well-tuned instrument, and the example on this recording is a beauty.
Without going into detail, few of the arrangements here seem to have given much notation as regards registrations for the harmonium and so, with the freedom given to the players it has to be said that the choices made for all of these pieces seem perfect. Only Karg-Elert provided detailed registrations in his arrangements, and these have been followed as faithfully as possible. The instrument has by its nature a fairly light, reedy sound ideal for chamber music. This is a timbre which can assert itself in a chamber-music context without being too penetrating, the lower sonorities creating harmonic richness and depth without being at all heavy, the two instruments complimenting each other well. They are also perfectly tuned to each other, which sounds obvious but is by no means always straightforward. I used to have an American Organ Co. instrument that was tuned almost a semitone sharp.
As for the repertoire, this disc is a delight from beginning to end. If you have the chance to sample some highlights, the opening of the Sextet in E-Flat major is a must with its interplay between the piano and the harmonium and beautiful textures and sonorities in the development section. In an absolutely fascinating arrangement the funereal Allegretto from the Seventh Symphony holds the harmonium back until the first counter melody, and while the dynamic rise and fall is tremendous it is the piano that does most of the heavy lifting in the lower registers and as a result nothing is overdone.
Karg-Elert’s arrangement of the Trio-Serenade Op. 8 picks out four movements and is missing its Allegretto alla polacca, though this version still makes for a glorious and surprisingly expressive experience. This is especially the case in the minor-key Adagio, which here sounds even more melancholy than usual. The Andante from the Quintet Op. 16 is just a lovely treat, as is the Karg-Elert arrangement of Ich liebe Dich with its prayerful changes of register - that Beethoven could be as sentimental as anyone when he was in the mood. Pianist Oliver Drechsel is also a respected composer, and his Dreaming of E. was originally written for a project called “250 piano pieces for Beethoven” initiated by pianist Susanne Kessel. This charming piece turns the first two notes of Für Elise into something that would fit perfectly into a poignant movie romance set in Paris. The grand finale is the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, which works well in the urgent rhythmic character of the piano and the enriching sonorities of the harmonium. This is certainly a con brio performance, and mention should be made of arranger August Reinhard, whose Harmoniumschule op. 16 was and remains a principal reference for anyone who wants to become a harmonium virtuoso.
Superbly played and recorded, this has been my favourite disc of 2021 so far. The only criticism I have is of the booklet text in English, which badly needed line editing by a native speaker. Presentation is however good, with the CD housed in a nicely illustrated double foldout slimline case, which hides a full-colour photo of the solid-looking period harmonium used in the recording.
Performers: Christoph Lahme (harmonium), Olivier Drechsel (piano)