March 02, 2006


J.P.E. Hartmann and Niels W. Gade: Works for Organ. Hans Fagius, organ. Dacapo. $16.99.

     After the magnificence of Bach’s organ works, after the excellent but more modest organ concerti of Handel, there is for most listeners a wide gulf in organ music that stretches from the Baroque to the late-Romantic and 20th-century compositions of Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937), Louis Vierne (1870-1937) and Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986).  Yet there were a few well-known Romantic composers who wrote for the instrument, including Mendelssohn, Liszt and Saint-Saëns (whose Symphony No. 3 is called the “Organ” Symphony).   Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra is also well known for its organ use.

     Much less well known are the organ works of two composers who were organists for most of their lives: Johan Peter Emilius Hartmann (1805-1900) and Niels W. Gade (1817-1890).  The two were for years the dominant figures in Danish musical life, but their works have not been frequently heard elsewhere.

     Hartmann and Gade not only worked together, but also had personal connections that ran deep: Hartmann, though only 12 years older than Gade, became Gade’s father-in-law.  Indeed, Gade wrote to Clara Schumann that his organ sonata, which eventually became Three Pieces for Organ (1851), went well with his then-recent betrothal to Hartmann’s daughter Sophie.

     Hans Fagius, a player of sensitivity and style, performs Hartmann’s and Gade’s works on an instrument of their time: the 1861 Marcussen organ in Haga Church, Gothenburg, Sweden.  Though the two composers used the organ very differently, both produced interesting and effective compositions for the instrument.  Hartmann’s works are the more serious and sonorous, taking full advantage of the instrument’s power and its ability to produce huge gouts of sound.  The Organ Sonata in G Minor, written mostly in 1855 but not finished until 1884, is a large-scale four-movement work of great muscularity.  In contrast, the Fantasia in A Major (1826 – Hartmann’s first organ composition) and Fantasia in F Minor (1837) are smaller in scale but still grand in scope.  The paired work Good Friday—Easter Morning (first composed in 1847, substantially revised in 1886) communicates its traditional religious message with more subtlety and fewer massed sonorities than Hartmann’s other works.  Also here are two funeral marches.  The one for actor N.P. Nielsen (1860) is suitably solemn and dark.  The one for sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1844) has more vibrant (but still appropriate) colors, and more rhythmic vitality as well.  Small wonder that this work was eventually played at Hans Christian Andersen’s funeral in 1875 – and at Hartmann’s own in 1900.

     The Gade organ works recorded here are more transparent and, on the whole, smaller in scale.  The aforementioned Three Pieces were originally to be part of a four-movement sonata, but Gade tore the work apart and left these pieces unconnected.  The other Gade works on this CD are all based on much older music.  The Three Chorale Preludes (1852) start with a setting of a melody from 1598 and continue with two different versions of one from 1657.  Ceremonial Prelude over the Chorale “Lover den Herre” (1873) is based on a famous melody, more commonly known as Lobet den Herrn, from 1665.  Gade treats all the old tunes with respect, never overwhelming them with the grand sound of which the organ is capable.  The result is a lightness in Gade’s music that is generally absent in Hartmann’s – just as Hartmann’s has a grandeur that Gade’s generally lacks.  All these works have points of interest, and all are very much worth listening to for those who are looking beyond the traditional organ repertoire.

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