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.
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.
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.