July 15, 2010


Nielsen: Complete Organ Works; Langgaard: Selected Organ Works. Friedhelm Flamme, organ. CPO. $16.99 (SACD).

Idil Biret Archive Edition, Volume 6: Schumann—Fantasiestücke; Brahms—Intermezzi, Op. 117. Idil Biret, piano. IBA. $8.99.

     Some CDs can be perfectly admirable in many ways but nevertheless difficult to recommend wholeheartedly, simply because they are “enthusiast” releases rather than ones with significant intrinsic musical value. Take the case of Carl Nielsen’s organ music. There is less than one hour of it, all written late in Nielsen’s life; and anyone expecting or hoping for revelations about the composer’s application of his late style to the organ is going to be disappointed. There is, in fact, only a single, 20-minute Nielsen organ piece of any importance whatsoever: Commotio, an extended fantasia from which Nielsen deliberately tried to remove anything personal or lyrical. He succeeded, creating a piece that is as sere as a blank northern landscape and without the formal interest that pre-Romantic organ music contained through use of well-established structures and harmonies. Friedhelm Flamme plays Commotio well, but the work is simply not particularly interesting except at its very end. The rest of Nielsen’s organ works are extremely short preludes, most of them under one minute in length and none of them longer than two. Nielsen was trying to create nonintrusive music suitable for church use, and succeeded to a limited extent; but, again, none of the music has much inherent interest. Flamme also plays an organ arrangement of Nielsen’s Festival Prelude to the New Century, which was originally written for piano but sounds quite fine on the organ. It does not, however, sound as good as the five short works by Rued Langgaard that fill out this SACD. Langgaard wrote a fair amount of organ music, mostly in the Romantic tradition on which Nielsen turned his back (Langgaard, for his part, strongly objected to the high esteem in which Nielsen was held). The Langgaard pieces here are quite well played and are moderately interesting, if not especially significant. The earliest is “At the Funeral of Axel Gade” (1921); the others are “Ascension Day” (1941), “‘Buried’ – First Sunday after Trinity” (1942), “Harvest Prelude” (1940) and “Wedding March” (1942). All are well-structured vignettes that show greater understanding of the organ’s capabilities than is displayed in Nielsen’s organ pieces. But the Langgaard works are scarcely to be called significant, and indeed this entire well-recorded SACD seems like something of a musical footnote.

     So does the latest entry in the Idil Biret Archives series – and it does not even have top-notch sound to recommend it. But there is a reason for that: this is a monophonic recording (that is, all the music was recorded into a single channel, as was necessary until the means were found to allow two-channel – stereophonic – sound separation). This recording dates back to 1959, when Biret was 17: it is a re-release of the first LP record that she ever made. “LP” stood for “long playing,” and that meant something different in 1959 from what it would mean today: the CD runs just 42 minutes. The performances happen to be exemplary, even though Biret was required by the recording producers to play Schumann’s Fantasiestücke and Brahms’ Op. 117 Intermezzi page by page in order to make editing easier – rather than all the way through, as she wanted to do and as she handled her performances in later recordings, when she was an established virtuoso with enough clout to have things done her way in the recording studio. Biret brings sweep as well as youthful enthusiasm to the Schumann, which is perhaps not surprising; what is surprising is the maturity with which she approaches the three late Brahms pieces – works whose worldliness she seems to sense intuitively. Biret’s considerable virtuosity is quite clear in this early recording, and the thoughtfulness that has always been a hallmark of her performances comes through as well, especially in the Brahms. But it is nevertheless impossible to recommend this CD unreservedly, since there are many good recordings of these pieces available – with better audio quality and additional music on the same disc. Collectors of the entire Idil Biret Archives series will certainly want this CD for the sake of completeness, but listeners primarily interested in the music will do just as well, if not better, with other, more recent performances.

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