Friday, 15 June 2012

Unique recordings with Helmut Walcha and Günther Ramin

I am proud to be able to present three very unique organ recordings. Thanks to a generous contribution from Claudia Zachariassen, the owner of the Marcussen organ building firm, I can present two live recordings with Helmut Walcha and Günter Ramin. They were recorded on two Marcussen organs: at the concert hall at the Danish "Statsradiofonien" (Danish Broadcasting Corporation, on its former location in Copenhagen) May 8th 1953 with Helmut Walcha playing, and the other during the inauguration concert of the organ in Göteborg concert hall April 28th 1937 with Günther Ramin. They were cut on acetate discs most likely from a radio transmission and presented to the former owner of Marcussen Sybrand Zachariassen (1900-1960), so they most likely only exist in this exact copy.

The third recording is a contribution from David C. Kelzenberg (Iowa, USA). It is Helmut Walcha playing the “Ricercar á 6” from “Das Musichalishes Opfer” by J. S. Bach. This recording was done privately by Helmut Walcha some times in the 1970s, pressed on a vinyl seven inch phonograph record in a very limited number and given as a Christmas present to friends and students.

For many reasons these recordings are worth listening to. First of all they represent some very fine organ playing, but also of course due to their rarity. In connection with the two live recordings they also show a very rare insight into organ performance during a concert. Especially with Helmut Walcha it is obvious, compared to his “studio recordings”, that he plays with even more energy and takes more chances during a concert.

I couldn’t find information about the orchestra playing with Günther Ramin, but it could be reasonably to assume that it is the Göteborg Symphony Orchestra, which I assume existed in some form back in 1937.

The sound quality of both Walcha are very good, but due to the age and perhaps the decaying of the acetate discs the Günter Ramin recording some places has a high degree of background noise and some other flaws.

But again thanks to Claudia Zachariassen and David C. Kelzenberg for providing these recordings, and also thanks to Claus Byrith for the digital transfer and audio restoration.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Kevin Bowyer playing K. S. Sorabji - Organ Symphony No. 1

Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji – Organ Symphony No. 1 (1922/23)

“For those interested in such matters, Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji was born in Chingford, Essex, England on 14 August 1892; his father was a Zoroastrian Parsi civil engineer and his mother English (for a long time, until the work of Sean Vaughan Owen, she was reputed to be part Sicilian, part Spanish). He spent most of his life in England. From his early ’teens he developed an insatiable appetite for the latest developments in contemporary European and Russian music and went to great lengths to obtain the latest scores of such composers as Mahler, Debussy, Schönberg, Skryabin, Rakhmaninov and others at a time and in a country where almost all such music was largely unknown and unrecognized. Of an independent and uniquely curious nature, it is perhaps unsurprising given the pre-War English environment that his education, both general and musical, was mostly private.

For a composer as prolific as he was soon to become, he was an unusually late developer and his voracity in absorbing all the most recent trends in other people’s music seems to have excluded from his mind the idea of making his own until he reached his twenties.

A close friend and confidant of the English composer Philip Heseltine from 1913, Sorabji wrote to him that he was considering a career as a music critic. Once he had begun to compose, however, the floodgates of his imagination burst and a tremendous river of musical creativity flowed forth almost uninterrupted until the early 1980s.”

( - Alistar Hinton)

Kaikhosru Sorabji might not be a household name not even in the organist community but nonetheless it is closely connected with the organist Kevin Bowyer, who has championed the music for over a quarter of a century, and he is the only organist in the world who has played Sorabjis music on a bigger scale.

Kevin Bowyer writes about his relationship with the symphony and the performances:

“The playing history of the First Organ Symphony (1923/4, published 1925 by Curwen) before Århus is as follows:

1928 - E Emlyn Davies, a harmony professor at the Royal Academy of Music, played the middle movement in a recital at the Westminster Congregational Chapel. The audience included Sorabji himself (who was very pleased with it) and also the 26 year William Walton, who enjoyed it greatly and wrote to Sorabji to tell him so. Sorabji was so pleased with the performance that he dedicated his Second Organ Symphony (1929-32) to Davies. (The Second Symphony (unpublished), at over 8 hours duration, is the longest fully notated organ piece ever composed (so far as we know) and remained unplayed in its entirety until I did it in Glasgow in 2010).

A performance of the First Organ Symphony was planned to take place in Glasgow in 1931, played by two players at the piano, but never took place. As far as we know, there were no further performances at all until:

July 25, 1987 - The first complete performance. Holy Trinity Sloane Street, London. The idea was to have three organists play, taking a movement each. Thomas Trotter opted to play the middle movement and I was asked to play either the first or the last. Three months later, when no other player had volunteered, I was asked to play the remaining movement too, so the first performance consisted of me playing movts. 1 and 3, and Thomas playing movt. 2.

1988 - Århus - the first complete performance by a single player.

Since then I have played the First Symphony complete in Linz, Malmø, Darmstadt, Manchester and Glasgow.

I met the composer in January 1988 and went to see him five times before his death in October 1988, aged 96.”

- Kevin Bowyer

As mentioned above much of Sorabjis music is of immense proportions. The present release consisting of the organ symphony no. 1 plays two hours (45 minutes alone for the third movement). The music is intriguing and compelling not alone in its size but also harmonics and structure. Sorabji never seems to run out of ideas or thematic material.

It is some of the most complex music ever composed for one musician to play, so just calling it a virtuoso organ piece would not be a proper description and calling Kevin Boywer “just” a virtuoso organist (which he by any standard is!) would also not be a fulfilling description. What Kevin Bowyer has done here is by any measure of the highest order - mentally, musically even physically speaking – and not many, if any, organists is capable of playing this music.

On the technical side recordings do not have to be mono and with far from high fidelity sound quality to be historical. This recording is indeed historical even though it is only 24 years old.

It was recorded on April 24th 1988 in Aarhus Cathedral as part of the annual NUMUS Festival in the city (a festival dedicated to contemporary music). Thanks to former cathedral organist Anders Riber for providing this recording.

Thanks also to Kevin Bowyer and Alistar Hinton curator of the Sorabji Archive. For those interested in learning more about Sorabji, the website for the Sorabji Archive is highly recommendable – Worth mentioning is also Kevin Bowyers vast project to play, publish and record Sorabjis three organ symphonies -

Monday, 18 July 2011

Robert Noehren playing works by Johann Sebastian Bach

Robert Noehren (1910-2002) was an influential American organist with a broad interest in organ building, performance practice and writing.

He was named “International Performer of the Year 1978” by The American Guild of Organists, and in that connection I’ve found this short biography (

“Robert Noehren (December 16, 1910 – August 4, 2002) enjoyed a long and distinguished career as international recitalist, recording artist, scholar, author, and teacher. He was for many years University Organist and Head of the Organ Department at the University of Michigan. His discography numbers over 40 recordings, from earlier vinyl LPs to a number of CDs made late in his career. Among his many honors were the French Grand Prix du Disque for his recording of the Bach Trio Sonatas. His interest in historical organ building led to numerous trips to France, Germany, and Holland, and the establishment of his own organ building company, where he designed and built some 20 large pipe organs, including a four-manual organ for the Cathedral of St. John in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Active up until the day of his death, Noehren practiced every day, had plans to make another commercial recording on the large organ he built for First Presbyterian Church, Buffalo, New York, was writing a cook book, and was preparing a lecture for the convention of the American Institute of Organbuilders. He was also a serious composer, having studied with Paul Hindemith.”

This recording was made in Kenmore Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, N.Y. in 1951 on an organ build by Schlicker in collaboration with Robert Noehren. I’ve inserted the back cover of the LP below.

In many respects his organ playing resembles that of Helmut Walcha. It’s clear, intelligent, fluent and a bit restrained. The performances are logical and performed with great control and with a delicate sense for lines and polyphony. The slow movements are beautifully shaped with a very vocal phrasing and the fast movements are never rushed.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Feike Asma & Hans Vollenweider playing works by J. S. Bach and F.Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

I’m now able to present two new organists to IHORC, the Dutch organist Feike Asma (1912-1984) and the Swiss organist Hans Vollenweider (1918-1993).

"Forever closely associated with the organ of the Great Church of Maassluis (near Rotterdam) is the name of Feike Asma. In 1927, Asma succeeded his father as organist of the Reformed Church of Den Helder. He played the organ of the Hooglandse Kerk in Leiden from 1933 to 1943, afterward moving to the historical organ of the Lutherian Church in The Hague. Asma served as organist here for a period of 22 years, gracing the services and giving many recitals. In 1965, Asma became organist at Maassluis until his death in 1984, again playing for services and in numerous recitals. In the notes to the last recording issued during his life, Mr Jan Quintus Zwart characterised Osma in these words:

"Over half a century, organ virtuoso Feike Asma has achieved his own place among Dutch organists. While giving so many recitals, he was assured of a large audiences of enthusiastic listeners for his recitals throughout Holland, on large and small organs. But he also played in France, the United States, Canada and South Africa, again attracting large audiences to his recitals."

Asma was a pupil of the legendary organist and historian Jan Zwart. He was a very remarkable person, also due to his very virtuous style of playing. He had many admirers, but he was also received harshly by some critics. Asma, bound to the organ with a deep love for the symphonic orchestra, was the organist who always gave much attention to the large-scale works of the Romantic organ literature. Reger, Liszt, Widor and Franck figured frequently in his programmes, and he also often included some of his own choral music and those of Zwart. As Asma himself once put it: "I'm a man who has the God-given ability of making music, and so I'm glad that I am able to play [for others]." Indeed, this was the foundation of his passion for music and organ playing.

His approach to the organ is very romantic. The phrasings are bold and long and his choice of registrations always broad with a lot of foundation stops. Since he lived well into both the LP and even the digital age, many of his performances are documented live as well as in “studio”. I’m unsure of the exact time of recording, but they were according to some sources mechanically copied in 1941, which mean that these copies were stamped in 1941 from the master but might in fact be much older. They sound quality is surprisingly poor compared to contemporary recordings.

“The Swiss organist, Hans Vollenweider, was brought up in an artistic atmosphere, his father being a well known painter and publisher. He commenced his organ studies when he was 15 with Victor Schlatter and Ernst Isler. In 1936 he took his first organ post at the local church, whilst studying at the Music Academy, Zürich. Three years later he graduated from the Academy with great success and after some recital work studied with Karl Matthaei, a pupil of the great organ virtuoso Karl Straube. In 1943, at the age of 25, Hans Vollenweider took an appointment as church organist in Zürich and soon began to travel extensively both as a virtuoso and as a teacher. He was ranked among the leading organists in Europe. His travels have frequently brought him to this country and in 1961 he went to Michigan University, USA, to hold master-classes. He broadcast and recorded extensively; and divided his time more or less equally between the harpsichord and the organ, and composing - mainly choral and chamber works.. He also held a teaching post in Organ and Harpsichord at the Zürich Music Academy.”

The two recordings presented here could be live recordings. The label says “Holland Festival Recording 1950”, there is an unusual amount of background noise, eg. someone coughing and like the Feike Asma recordings, the sound quality is below the standard of other recordings from the same period. Similar to Feike Asma his style is romantic and the “O Mensch bewein” is beautifully shaped.

Many thanks to Claus Byrith for making these transfers.

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Monday, 21 March 2011

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 3

This is the third and penultimate release with Olivier Messiaen playing his own works for now. The last works missing is his “Messe de la Pentecôte” and his “Livre d’Orgue”. Oliver Messiaen also recorded the “Méditations sur le mystère de la Sainte Trinité”, but since it was composed in 1969 it was from obvious reasons not included in the 1956 recording sessions. He recorded the “Méditations” in 1972, but we’ll have to wait until 2022 for a public domain release of that.

I’ve already covered many sides of the circumstances connected with these recordings, so I’ll again let Timothy Tikker speak. This time it's concerning the interpretations by Olivier Messiaen, and also draw attention to his excellent article from The American Organist (Nov 2008):

“Identifying Messiaen as a romantic performer may seem surprising, when so many think of him as the ultra-modernist who, for example, did so much to introduce total serialism in composition. And yet, he admitted plainly: "I'm not ashamed of being a romantic. The romantics were magnificent craftsmen . . . The romantics were aware of the beauties of nature, of the grandeur of divinity; they were grandiose, and many of our contemporaries would gain from being 'romanticized.'

This, of course, leads to the questions of tempo rubato, and of meter and rhythm. Rhythm was of absolute, primal importance to Messiaen. Some have thought that Messiaen's complex rhythms are simply indications of rubato - a conclusion that, however, Messiaen emphatically denied. [..]

This does not, however, in any way mean that Messiaen did not use rubato in performance. On the contrary, we hear rubato extensively in his recordings. Many lyric phrases begin with the first note or two somewhat held back, then with a ritenuto at the end of the phrase. The highest note of a phrase may be prolonged: "Les Bergers," p. 9, the right-hand A in m. 16 and high D in m. 19; "Les Anges," p. 1, the right-hand B's in the first system. We hear cadential ritardandos that are not indicated in the scores, e.g., the middle of "Les Eaux de la Grâce" (p. 5, m. 4), or the close of the opening monody of "l'Ange aux Parfums." One conspicuous rhythmic alteration is the quickening of groups of 32nd notes, e.g., the pick-up figures in "Force et Agilité des Corps glorieux," as well as several figures in "Les Anges." This is a very typical romantic performance practice: the "enhancement" of shorter note values by quickening them.35 We hear an especially striking use of rubato in the toccata section of the fifth Trinité Mèditation, in which the pedal melody's sixteenth/eighth downward fifth (p. 42, m. 6; p. 43, m. 6) is emphasized, particularly by stretching the 16th. Surprising though it may seem to use rubato in such a relentlessly motoric texture, the effect is wonderfully powerful and dramatic, making other performances seem stiff and lifeless by comparison. “

I completely agree with Timothy Tikker. It’s very clear that Olivier Messiaen was grounded in the romantic performance style and perhaps his music should be approached in that way. Many post or contemporary organists of Messiaen tend to play his music only “as written” which makes their performances seem “stiff and lifeless by comparison” again quoting Timothy Tikker.
We have the same situation with the piano music of Bela Bartok and Sergei Prokofiev - they were also schooled in the romantic tradition and also played their music in that manner (cf. their many recorded performances of their own works), but since they suggested a new and much more percussive approach to the piano, many pianist afterwards tend to have all their focus on that element forgetting that the music was shaped with the romantic idiom in mind.
Again many thanks to Anders Riber for the transfers.

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Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 2

The second part of the complete Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen consists of Apparition de l’Èglise éternelle and Les Corps Glorieux.

I discussed the technical and historical details in the first release, so I’ll not go into these details again.

As mentioned in the first release, I’m very reluctant in naming the definitive renditions of any works, but Messiaens own interpretation of the Apparition is simply amazing. His tempo is extremely slow but never dragging and his overall musical perception of the piece is so incredible grand.

In fact looking over just a few other recordings of this piece puts Messiaens version as the slowest:

Olivier Messiaen (1956) 10:05, Latry (rec. 2000) 9:45, Rudolf Innig (1996) 9:16, Jennifer Bate (1982) 10:00, Susan Landale (1986) 7:36, Thomas Trotter (1993) 9:48, Louis Thiry (1972) 8:01.

The overall timing of a piece doesn’t directly tell anything about the actual tempo (or tempi) in a piece. There are many other factors in play, just listen to the very big pauses Messiaen has between some of the sections, but the overall timing can tell us a little of the performers overall grasp of the whole piece.

The Corps Glorieux are done with a strong personality and commanding interpretation, but still very spontaneous and with great elegance and plasticity. Especially I can recommend the “Les Eaux”, in which he almost make the organ dance in the middle section, and the fiendishly difficult last part is done in a very virtuoso style.

Thanks again to Anders Riber for providing the transfers of these important documents. No digital noise reduction has been applied, so there is a little background hiss and click here and there.

Friday, 31 December 2010

Olivier Messiaen plays Olivier Messiaen part 1

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Olivier Messiaen hardly needs any introduction at all. He was one of the most influential composers of the 20th century and organist at Trinité in Paris for 61 years! Here is a little excerpt from Wikipedia anyway:

“Olivier Messiaen; December 10, 1908 – April 27, 1992) was a French composer, organist and ornithologist, widely regarded as one of the major composers of the 20th century. His music is rhythmically complex (he was interested in rhythms from ancient Greek and from Hindu sources); harmonically and melodically it is based on modes of limited transposition, which he abstracted from his early compositions and improvisations. Many of his compositions depict what he termed "the marvellous aspects of the faith", and drew on his deeply held Roman Catholicism. He said he perceived colours when he heard certain musical chords, particularly those built from his modes (a phenomenon known as synaesthesia); combinations of these colours, he said, were important in his compositional process.
Messiaen entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 11 and was taught by Paul Dukas, Maurice Emmanuel, Charles-Marie Widor and Marcel Dupré, among others. He was appointed organist at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité in Paris in 1931, a post held until his death. He taught at the Schola Cantorum during the 1930s where one of his students was Georges Savaria. On the fall of France in 1940, Messiaen was made a prisoner of war, during which time he composed his Quatuor pour la fin du temps ("Quartet for the end of time") for the four available instruments—piano, violin, cello and clarinet. The piece was first performed by Messiaen and fellow prisoners for an audience of inmates and prison guards. He was appointed professor of harmony soon after his release in 1941, and professor of composition in 1966 at the Paris Conservatoire, positions he held until his retirement in 1978. His many distinguished pupils included Pierre Boulez and Yvonne Loriod, who became his second wife.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

These recordings are of course mandatory if one wishes to play and interpret the music of Messiaen. They were recorded in La Trinité in June and July 1956, and are in many ways electrifying, but they are not without flaws. I’ll here draw attention to a very detailed article on the subject by Timothy Tikker from 2008, originally posted in The American Organist:
"Granted, the 1956 recordings are not without their flaws. The sound is monophonie (even though stereo was available then), and the fidelity merely adequate - certainly no match for the extraordinary engineering that Mercury Living Presence recordings had already achieved at that time. Also, the organ is in a poor state of repair: sometimes painfully out of tune (the coupled-flutes solo in Diptyque becomes excruciating, as can most registrations with mutations or mixtures) with some poor regulation (the 16' Basson solo low C doubles down something fierce), dead notes (treble D disappears from the Tierce in the monophony of "Offertoire" from Messe de la Pentecôte, p. 4), and sometimes inadequate wind (e.g., the sagging final chord of "Dieu parmi nous"; it figures that if seven stops and a pneumatic lever were added to an organ without increasing its wind capacity, there could be trouble!).”

I really encourage you to read this article and Tikker is of curse right. There are some serious flaws in the recordings. The organ is some places hopelessly out of tune and the fidelity of the sound taken in account recordings took place in 1956 is simply too Low Fi. One story goes, that when Messiaen was asked whether he wanted the organ tuned for the recordings, he replied, “Why, no? It’s only been 15 years since it was tuned the last time”.

Messiaen's performances differ quite a lot from modern performances. They are very pragmatic in the terms of tempo, rhythms and even registrations (even though he plays the works at the exact instrument for which they were composed!).
Some critics say that Messiaen wasn’t really an organist and therefore his rendering of his organ music cannot be trusted as his original intentions. Some critics say that they lack on the technical side simply that Messiaen wasn’t technically up for the job playing his organ music. I think both arguments are quite simply wrong. It’s clear that Messiaen plays his works with brilliance, deep understanding, and he is all the way through technically in total command. When he chooses to go alternative ways compared to the text, it’s because he want’s to do it that way. I don’t like to hail any recording as the definitive recording, but these recordings are a fascinating view into the musicianship and aesthetic of Olivier Messiaen.

Timothy Tikker concludes his article:

“After listening to these recordings for over 30 years, I still find them worthy of deep and careful study. By no means is this to say that one should slavishly imitate the composer's performances. In fact, just as when teaching composition he encouraged each student to find his or her own voice as a composer, Messiaen encouraged performers to develop their own interpretations of his music.40 Rather, Messiaen's recordings can help us to fathom the real spirit of his organ music, which spirit can then "incarnate" in each interpreter in richly varied and individualized ways. In that spirit, I strongly recommend these recordings to all who would study and perform Messiaen's music. “

Some technical details - It’s clear that the music was recorded on magnetic tape; there are some rough cuts here and there, cuts which only were possible with magnetic tape. The sound quality is, as mentioned, very poor compared to other organ recordings produced in the mid 1950s. Lastly but not least perhaps the only thing not entirely up for the job was perhaps the organ, which sounds like it’s in much disrepair. These three things taken into account and the fact that if Olivier Messiaen, as the towering personality he was, also among his contemporaries, had wanted it otherwise, he could most definitely had had it, show him as a very free and pragmatic musician. It’s perhaps a view musicians could incorporate more into the interpretations of his music today?

Thanks to Anders Riber for the transfers of the originals LPs. I’ll be posting the other recordings from 1956 and they are transferred, so stay tuned.

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