Is there a musical equivalent of the perfect storm, where a
number of factors combine to produce something quite extraordinary?
Indeed there is; the catalogue is littered with discs where
repertoire, performance and sonics have conspired to produce
recordings that seem unassailably ‘right’. Organ
recordings are harder to pull off, especially when it comes
to reproducing the instrument’s vast range and sense
of presence, but recent strides in recording technology have
brought that goal a little nearer.
But sound quality isn’t enough on its own, there’s
the programme and the standard of playing to consider as well.
Which brings me to Finnish organist Kalevi Kiviniemi, whose
recent discs have come pretty close to this magic state. The
first is a mixed recital from Saint-Ouen - review -
the second a disc of Franck from Central Pori in Finland - review.
Both recordings are of the very highest standard, especially
in their Super Audio form, thanks to the technical wizardry
of Mika Koivusalo and his team. Add to that varied and interesting
repertoire, exemplary playing and two fine instruments - a
Cavaillé-Coll and a Paschen respectively - and you have
two very special discs indeed.
Close, very close, but with this new recording we have it at
last - the perfect storm. In all my years of listening to ‘Spectacular’ this
and ‘Fireworks’ that, no organ disc has thrilled
and moved me as much as this one. It all starts with the organ
itself, a 52-stop, four-manual instrument installed in Lakeuden
Risti Church, the centrepiece of a town centre designed by
Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976). Unusually, the Kangasala
organ was an integral part of the building’s design from
the start, which may account for the extraordinarily rich,
rock-solid sound it produces.
Kiviniemi sets sail with three of his own arrangements of Liszt
piano pieces. The Concert-etude in D flat ‘Sospiro’, from Trois Études
de Concert, opens with a vast, rippling melody, the depth
and breadth of which has to be heard to be believed. In terms
of clarity and that elusive sense of presence, I can think
of no recording that comes even close to this wonderful account.
And, what’s more, the sheer amplitude of these sonic
waves excites a mixture of awe and trepidation, every note
and dynamic flawlessly rendered. But it’s not all about
spectacle; Kiviniemi is just as captivating in the smaller-scale
section that begins at 3:24, before he rounds off the piece
in rousing fashion.
Kiviniemi has always impressed me with his self-effacing style,
which may seem at odds with his reputation as a virtuoso organist.
His choice of registration also strikes me as well nigh perfect,
and one senses the building’s unique acoustic is as much
a part of his musical presentation as the organ itself. This
modern edifice and instrument must surely represent a high-water
mark in musico-acoustic design, Kiviniemi’s arrangement
of Consolation No.3, from Liszt’s Six
Penseés poétiques, yet another example of
how they work together to produce a uniquely satisfying musical
experience. Switching between the CD and SACD layers is instructive
here, simply because the latter reveals a quantum leap in terms
of unforced naturalness and sheer oomph, the Holy Grail of
The Czárdás obstinée’, one
of three Liszt wrote between 1881 and 1884, is dominated by
powerful ostinati, superbly articulated. It’s
a short piece but an exhilarating one, and I daresay the Abbé himself
would have smiled at Kiviniemi’s sure-footed response
to this spirited Magyar dance. Franck’s Danse Lente is
rather more leisurely, but what it lacks in sheer energy it
more than compensates for in luminous melodies and a beautifully
hushed finale. It’s different again from the more monumental Choral
III of 1890, which must be one of Franck’s most ‘orchestral’ works
for organ. Kiviniemi brings out all the music’s inner
voices and its sense of an unfolding narrative. It’s
a masterly reading, and one that confirms Kiviniemi’s
stature as a fine interpreter of this composer’s work.
Alexandre Guilmant, another iconic French organist-composer,
took inspiration for his Allegro maestoso e con fuoco from
the grandfather of them all, J.S. Bach. Based on the latter’s Prelude
in C minor BWV 546, it’s an imposing work, blending
filigreed finger-work with blazing passages for full organ.
It’s the kind of rafter-rattler at which Guilmant’s
pupil, Marcel Dupré, excelled. Indeed, the latter’s Antiphon, taken
from his 15 Versets sur les Vêpres de la Vierge, doesn’t
so much raise the roof as pick out and illuminate every detail
beneath it. Originally improvised at Notre-Dame de Paris, Antiphon has
a rare translucence that suits the Lakeuden organ’s mid
and upper reaches very well. Here clouds of scented sound fill
the air, anchored by soft pedals. Magical.
The French bloodline continues with Pierre Cochereau, a Dupré pupil
and organist at Notre-Dame from 1955 to 1984. His Scherzo
Symphonique, transcribed from a mass he improvised in 1974,
must have rolled and thundered around that cavernous space
to great effect. It’s pretty impressive in this modern
Finnish setting too, combining elastic rhythms in the bass
with glittering coronas of sound in the treble. It’s
all the more astonishing for being composed ‘on the fly’ as
it were, broadening into a lovely, affirmative tune at 2:22.
Kiviniemi plays this work with a breadth and dynamism that’s
wondrous to behold. And while we’re on the subject of
Cochereau, I must draw your attention to a recent Solstice
disc, Hommage à Cocherau, a fitting tribute to
this great improviser (review).
Now I must warn you that what follows will knock you sideways.
Commissioned to accompany a light show, Kiviniemi’s fantasia
on Suomalainen rukous (‘Finnish prayer’)
starts quietly enough, but it soon morphs into something much
more spectacular. One could easily imagine those sustained
notes matched to coloured beams of light à la Scriabin,
but nothing can prepare you for the vast swathe of sound that
comes next. This must have been a display to watch, growing
in intensity and complexity until.... No, that would be giving
away too much, you really must hear this for yourselves. Suffice
it to say I’ve never encountered anything like it.
How do you follow that? Well, with the music of another
talented Finn, Oskar Merikanto. In his booklet note Kiviniemi
describes Merikanto’s Passacaglia as ‘the
flagship of Finnish organ music’. He uses the composer’s
original registrations, as entered in the published score,
which may account for the rather sturdy character of this performance.
Make no mistake, though, Merikanto’s harmonic language
is very distinctive, the piece growing in density before subsiding
and reinvigorating itself in a massive, pealing peroration.
In many organ recordings this is the kind of music that becomes
a teeth-clenching ‘wall of sound’. Not so here;
Koivusalo and his team make quite sure that the music retains
its depth and shape to the very end which, in itself, is something
of a miracle.
I’m fresh out of superlatives, and not a little exhausted
by listening to this disc so many times. Exhausted but elated,
as one so often is after a very special musical event. I urge
you all to go out and buy this recording; then batten down
the hatches and prepare for the perfect storm.