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Isabelle Demers (organ)
The Chicago Recital
Ernest MACMILLAN (1893-1973)
Cortège Académique [4:56]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
The Sleeping Beauty, Op.66 (excerpts) [6:23]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue in E minor, Op.127 [30:09]
Rachel LAURIN (b.1961)
Three Short Studies, Op.68 [9:06]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op.61 (excerpts) [12:29]
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Prelude & Fugue in B, Op.7 No.1 [7:19]
rec. 22-24 June 2015, Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago, USA
ACIS APL41752 [70:49]

30 minutes of undiluted Reger organ music is a daunting prospect, even for deeply committed critics, but this huge wodge of labyrinthine textural lines, writhing around each other like so many snakes emerging from the rocks on the chase for a snack (in that unforgettable Planet Earth sequence), and Reger’s tortuous chromatic diversions, passes (it seems) in the twinkling of an eye (almost). What makes the unpalatable palatable and the impenetrably dense merely opaque, is the seemingly limitless array of colours, timbres and dynamic shades on this mighty Skinner organ of the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in the University of Chicago.

This is not just one organ, but two combined, giving us a tally of, to quote from the booklet, 8565 pipes and 132 rank. There’s everything there from a 64 foot Gravissima on the pedals and a 32 foot Violone on the manuals, to a seven rank Cymbal, a Randal State Trumpet, Chimes, a Harp, a celesta and a Zimbelsterm. The bulk of the organ dates back to 1928, but a major rebuild in 2008 by Schantz saw it considerably enlarged. Unlike so many organs of this size in the USA, this one seems perfectly suited to the building, and the recording captures its huge array of timbres and colours magnificently.

Of course, any organ, no matter how well endowed, is only a noise-producing machine. It takes a player with an ear for registration to turn that multiplicity of noises into enticingly appropriate sound, it takes a real musician to transform those sounds into credible music, and it takes a very special person indeed to communicate persuasive musical arguments and enticing organ sound to those listening via the impersonal medium of a digital recording. In Isabelle Demers, we have just such a person. She has a splendid gift for registration, somehow showing off the vast resources of this organ while, at the same time, making the sounds produced seem utterly appropriate to the music played, and she has that innate understanding of the music which not only makes total sense to those of us listening, but communicates what the composer is saying with complete conviction. It is hard to imagine a performance of Reger’s gargantuan Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue delivered with quite such verve and intensity while, at the same time, making for surprisingly enjoyable listening.

But Demers’ skill does not stop there. She has chosen an excellent programme to show the organ off, and has made two transcriptions of excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which do what only the very best transcriptions can do; make them sound utterly idiomatic on the organ. With the Tchaikovsky extracts we hear much of the organ’s more light and glittering sounds, while with the Mendelssohn Nocturne we get a delicious taste of what the booklet describes as the organ’s “many soft, ethereal effects”. The Mendelssohn Scherzo is an object lesson in understated virtuosity, bubbling along in a deceptively effortless manner.

Works by Demers’ compatriots are included, and it is hard to imagine either of them being delivered with more persuasiveness than she does here. Ernest MacMillan, conductor, educator and composer, is described in Demers’ own note as “one of Canada’s most brilliant musicians”, and while the title of his Cortège Académique may not seem immediately enticing, the spectacular sound of this great organ showpiece, full of Elgarian and Waltonian touches spiced up by some distinctly French harmonic gestures, makes this a real highlight, and essential listening for those who have not encountered the piece before. I am less enthusiastic about Rachel Laurin’s three short pieces, which do not hide their derivative nature; the first, Monologue, recalls George Thalben-Ball’s pedals only Paganini Variations, the second, Flight of the Hummingbird, revisits Rimsky-Korsakov, while the third, Dialogue of the Hummingbird, “constantly segues into other tunes” (according to Demers), but seems to juxtapose, rather awkwardly, a clutch of rather blatant quotes from Bach, on to otherwise austere music. Musical matters aside, these three short pieces are superb vehicles for Demers’ outstanding virtuosity.

Organ and player get a thorough workout in the Dupré Prelude and Fugue in B, a dazzling, celebratory showpiece which, while it does seem a bit weighed down by a prominent pedal line here, proves a fitting culmination to a disc of real organistic excellence.
Marc Rochester

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