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Arts Music, Russia

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Passacaglia and fugue in c minor, BWV582 [12:40]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasia and fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, S259/R380 (1850) [30:45]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.5: Andante cantabile (transcr. Edwin Lemare) [13:30]
Christopher KUSHNAREV (1890-1960)
Passacaglia and fugue in f# minor (1924) [8:43 + 6:21]
Konstantin Volostnov (organ)
rec. Moscow International Performing Arts Center, 29 August – 2 September 2016. DDD
Organ specification included.
ART CLASSICS ART-350 or KVCD-009 [72:14]

Last year I reviewed a recording made by Konstantin Volostnov on the organ of Riga Cathedral. Like the current release the CD that I heard was on the Russian Art Classics label, kindly supplied by the editor of the English notes. It’s also more easily available in the UK on the Priory label. At present the new recording is available only from Russia but I hope that Priory or someone else will consider making this, too, more accessible under licence to organ lovers. Once again I’m indebted to Erika Stephens who is responsible for the excellent English notes: a missing colon which has dislocated her text is not to be ascribed to her.

The new CD opens with Bach. As with the Prelude and Fugue in D, BWV532, on the earlier recording this is not an attempt to perform the Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV582, as it might have sounded on the organ of the Thomaskirche. What Volostnov gives us is a performance that Bach might have given on an organ with a greater choice of deep-voiced stops than in his day: see the notes on the organ below. Respighi’s orchestral transcription of this work, as performed by Leonard Slatkin with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos CHAN9835) is very impressive – a 5-star review from Colin Anderson and Lewis Foreman – but if you are looking for a performance that is admirably paced yet lets rip when the moment arises, I prefer Volostnov.

Oddly enough there seem to be more recordings of BWV582 as orchestral transcriptions, by Respighi or Stokowski, than on the organ. Of the latter my benchmark would be Peter Hurford on a very useful budget-price Double Decca 2-CD introduction to Bach’s organ music (4434852). Hurford chooses tempi very similar to Volostnov’s but though he probably comes closer to the sound that Bach would have expected, overall he’s a touch less exciting. Christopher Herrick on a programme mainly of Toccatas and Fugues was one of my top 30 choices on the Hyperion label (CDA66434); he’s probably more ‘authentic’ still but less uninhibited – one for contemplative listening at the end of the day, all passion spent, whereas Volostnov would be more likely to keep you awake.

I’m all for period performance, preferring the harpsichord to the modern piano in Bach and usually averse to too much use of the deeper stops in music of this period, but there are exceptions to every rule: I happily make Angela Hewitt, Glenn Gould and Konstantin Volostnov the exception in Bach. He’s such a wonderful composer that there is no one ‘correct’ way to perform his music. I shall not be ditching Hurford or Herrick but I shall be listening to Volostnov and I look forward to hearing more of his Bach.

It’s quite some time since I reviewed Kevin Bowyer’s complete recording of Bach’s organ music in mp3 – Bargain of the Month – so this is as good a time as any to remind readers that the complete set can be obtained at super-budget price from Nimbus, with a 10% discount if you use the code MusicWeb10. Another superb Bach bargain, all his extant works in mp3 on a USB stick from Warner/Teldec – Recording of the Month – appears to have been deleted: it’s no longer a bargain when someone on Amazon is asking £2,082.24 as I write. (Where did the 24p come from?) If you can find a copy still at a reasonable price, snap it up.

Bowyer plays all the music on his complete set on the Marcussen Organ of Sct Hans Kirke, Odense, Denmark. It’s a very fine instrument for Bach’s music and though there’s nothing more ‘growly’ than 16“ – labelled Bordun (Bourdon), Tręprincipal, Subbas (subbasso or soubasse) and Fagot (fagotto) – it provides a fulsome sound for his interpretations. Even if you have several Bach organ recordings, the Nimbus mp3 set offers a complete survey at a very tempting price.

Koopman on that Teldec/Warner set employs a variety of Dutch and North German organs for his complete survey: though the USB is no longer available, the complete organ works can still be found on a very worthwhile and inexpensive 16-CD set (2564692817 – target price £33). As might be expected, Koopman’s BWV582 is a little faster than most, though only a little faster than Volostnov, and, crucially, both manage to avoid coming off the rails.

What the best Bach recordings remind us of is the composer’s own love of different instruments: he seems to have owned a pedal-harpsichord, a strange hybrid which allowed domestic composition and performance of organ music, also a Lautenwerck, or lute-harpsichord, mellower than the standard harpsichord, and he may even have owned one of the newfangled fortepianos. I think he would also have liked the Moscow Performing Arts Center organ.

There are fifty recordings of the Liszt in the current UK catalogue. It’s a work not to be undertaken unadvisedly or lightly. Not having heard Stephen Cleobury’s recording, released in 2015 on the King’s College label, which we seem not to have reviewed on MusicWeb, I listened to it as downloaded in 24/96 format for a very reasonable £9.75, with pdf booklet, from hyperion-records.co.uk. (KGS0010, with Mendelssohn Sonata in d minor and Reubke Sonata on the 94 th Psalm).

The same programme, minus the Mendelssohn, is available on an earlier benchmark recording from Simon Preston at the organ of Westminster Abbey (DG 4151392, stream, download or special Presto CD). Thomas Trotter’s first-rate all-Liszt Decca CD containing Ad nos is now available for streaming or download only (4402832, with the Prelude on Weinen, klagen, Evocation a la chapelle sistine and Prelude and fugue on B-A-C-H).

Together these represent a formidable phalanx against which to judge the new recording but it holds its own even against such strong competition. As in Bach, Volostnov wisely saves his powder for the final Fugue and even there he doesn’t let all his guns blaze all the time. If I could play this work even remotely as well as Volostnov – fond hope – I’d have been tempted to pile on the registration and open the box far too early and thus would have spoiled the real climax which he achieves. The King’s and DG coupling of the Reubke makes those recordings particularly desirable but the new rival is also something special.

Opinions on the pace of the closing fugue vary widely, even among my benchmarks, with Trotter taking 9:28, Preston 9:33 and Cleobury 11:19. Volostnov’s 10:05 falls somewhere in the middle without sounding like a compromise: in fact, as so often, all four interpretations sound so ‘right’ that I’m surprised to see how different they appear on paper.

There’s one other recording which I ought to mention here, since we seem not to have reviewed it when it was released in 2004. On Alpha 059 [65:34] Yves Rechsteiner performs Ad nos on the organ of Schwerin Cathedral, the largest instrument made by Friedrich Ladegast. It’s not quite such a mighty beast as Volostnov’s instrument – nothing deeper than 32“ stops – but it sounds well in Rechsteiner’s hands in a programme which also includes the Prelude and Fugue on B-A-C-H, the Prelude to Weinen, klagen, sorgen, zagen and some arrangements for soprano and organ of music by Mendelssohn and Bach. I didn’t think that the vocal items added to the appeal of the recording but it’s otherwise well worth considering.

I thought at first that it might be a mistake to include the organ transcription of the second movement, andante cantabile, of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony but Volostnov’s performance made me change my mind. It’s slower than my benchmark recording of the original, from the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra and Evgeny Mravinsky, one of the treasures of the catalogue on a budget-price 2-CD set of Nos. 4, 5 and 6 (DG Originals 4775911) and slightly slower even than another favourite recording from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony, download only) but the performance really captures the soul of Mother Russia with her heart on her sleeve. I was completely convinced – and that from someone who finds many performances of the other Tchaikovsky Andante cantabile, the one from the First String Quartet, over-sentimental. I believe that this is the only current recording of this movement from the symphony in Lemare’s transcription and that in itself would be reason enough to obtain this CD.

Another good reason would be the final work, the Kushnarev Prelude and Fugue. There’s only one other recording in the current catalogue which I haven’t been able to hear, from Benjamin Saunders at Leeds Cathedral on the Herald label where the composer’s name is spelled Kushnariov – a different transcription from the Cyrillic.

The Moscow Performing Arts Center acoustic is clear and the recording very good – long gone are the days when a Russian-made recording had to be tolerated. The Liszt comes over particularly well, without the slight haziness of the King’s acoustic for Cleobury or that of Westminster Abbey for Preston.

The booklet contains helpful notes in Russian and English and the complete specification of the organ, itself aptly described in the notes as uniquely Russian but in a symphonic style which harkens back to the German Romantic tradition. I’m particularly intrigued to see listed the very rare 64“ acoustic pedal stop Vox balenae (Voice of the whale). I don’t think I’ve ever heard an organ with this stop before: the temptation to over-use it must be overwhelming.

I began with the hope that Priory or some other enterprising label would license this recording for more general availability of the UK, Western Europe and the USA. I end with the same thought. Unless and until that happens, it’s well worth taking the trouble to obtain it from the Russian supplier.

Brian Wilson


 




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