Monthly Archives: November 2015

Something to be Thankful For – Two Five-Star Organ Recordings

As impossible as it might seem, I’ve been the recipient of not one, but two outstanding organ recordings this month, from opposite sides of the Atlantic. From the United States and Reference Recordings comes Organ Polychrome – The French School, recorded in Kansas City and played by Jan Kraybill, and MDG Records in Germany presents Max Reger – Organ Works, recorded in Hamburg and played by Christoph Schoener.

The United States disc is presented in HDCD and gives an arresting aural picture of The Julia Irene Kauffman Organ – Casavant Freres, Op. 3875, 2011 housed in the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri. The German disc is a Hybrid Multichannel SACD presenting the three organs of St. Michaelis Church in Hamburg.

Organ Polychrome 2

Kraybill plays a colorful program of compositions by French organ masters on the mighty yet transparent KC organ, opening with Widor’s Allegro from his Symphony No. 6 in g minor and closing with Gigout’s thunderous  Grand-Choeur dialogue. In between are soft & dulcet pieces and louder, more heroic ones from Schmitt, Alain, Durufle, Dupre, Franck, and Guilmant. Kraybill doesn’t shy away from the bombast when called for, but she discovers and emphasizes lyrical elements wherever they exist. She talks of an “extensive array of tonal colors” in her clearly written program notes and as impossible as it might seem reading this, that turns out to be almost an understatement on hearing the music itself.

Schoener is dealing with just one composer, but a composer with many different facets. Reger’s powerful and elaborate Fantasy on the Choral “Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott and Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue are offset by the lovely simplicity of a dozen chorales from Reger’s Opus 135a. Schoener’s playing is precise, urgent, and colorful. Lyricism does not  suffer but structure and registration are of utmost importance.

Reger MDG

The two recordings clearly define the contrasting locations. The Kraybill disc shows off  the concert hall that houses the Casavant organ. Reverberation is that of a concert hall. Awesome fff chords die away relatively soon. The opposite is true of the MDG disc, recorded in a church with a long delay time, but that does not keep MDG from achieving clarity it its recording. Both the Keith O. Johnson engineered Reference Recordings disc and the MDG SACD, produced by company founders Werner Dabringhaus and Reimund Grimm are five-star efforts. There’s no case of either-or here, both are must hear titles.

American Composers of Note

I love American music! American composers have contributed some of the most energetic, buoyant, and socially significant compositions of all time. It was a marvelous event, then, to be introduced to two composers I’d not known prior to hearing the two discs of their music that arrived within three days of each other.

Saul Kiev

Walter Saul (b. 1954) has written two compositions that are extremely relevant this November.  One is Kiev 2014: Rhapsody for Oboe and Orchestra, which goes right along with today’s headline that terrorists have destroyed electrical equipment that put Crimea in the dark. Saul’s piece portrays the strife of current events in Ukraine’s largest city and it is fittingly played in virtuoso style by oboist Ron-Huey Liu and the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, conducted by Theodore Kuchar, an American maestro who was the orchestra’s music director from 1994-2004. Christmas is almost upon us again, and the Naxos disc also contains Saul’s 1992 Christmas Symphony. This is a charming enough work, using no familiar holiday tunes, but for my money the “hit” of this disc is the blazing Overture for the Jubilee from 1997. It’s virtuoso trumpet fanfares would start any concert off with a convincing and satisfying bang.

Garrop- Mythology Symphony

Cedille, the Chicago based record label, sent a disc of orchestral music by American composer Stacy Garrop, played with amazing conviction and finesse by the Chicago College of Performing Arts Orchestra and Chamber Orchestra, conducted respectively by Alondra de la Parra and Markand Thakar.  The main piece is the Mythology Symphony, a five movement work that depicts Medusa, Penelope, the Sirens, the Fates, and Pandora. I loved its post romantic sweep and dramatic lyricism but was even more impressed by the shorter Thunderwalker, which depicts the ritual, invocation, and summoning, of a mythic god.  Garrop’s orchestration is stunning. She really understands all the instruments of the orchestra. The writing for percussion and brass instruments stands withe the best ever written.

The Naxos recording is excellent, the Cedille recording of demonstration caliber.

Surrounded by Flutes

Those readers who follow regularly will know that I’m a big fan of surround sound, not just for theatrical blockbuster movies, but for music, too. When surround first came out it was often used to exaggerate direction by placing instrumental choirs and soloists in the rear channels when the music didn’t call for it. But there are a number of compositions that do require instrumentalists in locations other than the front. These include the Berlioz Requiem, with its four brass choirs placed in the corners of the church or Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Surround is indispensable to these compositions if they are to be heard correctly.

Shadow of Sirius

Now here comes Naxos with a Blu-ray collection of contemporary wind band pieces that all use surround to encompass an audience and heighten its listening experience. Steven Bryant’s Concerto for Wind Ensemble has three concertino groups surrounding the audience; Joel Puckett’s Shadow of Serius – Concerto for Flute with Winds and Percussion, places very effective echo flutes all around the listening area; and John Mackey’s Kingfishers Catch Fire adds brilliant trumpet fanfares in the rear to the finale. The playing of the University of Texas Wind Ensemble under the direction of Jerry Junkin is all first rate and not only is the recording surround, it is also HD, recorded and delivered at 24 bits/96kHZ. It’s not always an easy listen (I welcomed the familiar jazz patterns in the 3rd movement of the Bryant composition) but always an exhilarating one.