Wagner: Organ Fireworks (SACD review)

Overture and prelude transcriptions. Hansjorg Albrecht, organ. Oehms Classics OC 690.

There is something intriguingly simple about having one performer play one instrument that simulates the music of an entire symphony orchestra. The performer is Hansjorg Albrecht; the instruments are the Cavaeille-Coll-Mutin organ and Kleuker organ of St. Nikolai Church, Kiel, Germany; and the music is Wagner. Mr. Albrecht doesn’t mean for his adaptations to replace full-orchestral versions of this material but rather as singular, workable alternatives to them. It’s certainly fascinating stuff.

Of course, it helps that conductor, organist, and harpsichordist Albrecht knows what he’s doing arranging and performing these Wagner transcriptions. Not only is he the Artistic Director of the Munich Bach Choir and Bach Orchestra, he’s done organ transcriptions before, having already recorded albums of Wagner’s Ring excerpts, Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Holst’s Planets, and other such music in organ transcriptions. With that kind of background, we can expect him to produce good results.

So, Albrecht begins the program with the Overture to Tannhauser, very familiar material. The secret is making a single instrument substitute for a full orchestra, which he pulls off pretty well with his arrangements. Using all of today’s modern concert organ’s electronic setting devices and storage applications, he is able to duplicate quite a few different orchestral sounds simultaneously. The effect can often be startlingly impressive. It raises the question, though: If you’re going to use the organ to imitate all the voices of an orchestra, why not just use an actual orchestra? Hmmmm. Well, I suppose, for one, it’s cheaper; one performer, one instrument. But, more to the point, it’s simply a novel idea and a unique sound. For fans of organ music, Albrecht’s Wagner disc might be a good investment.

After Tannhauser, which Albrecht performs nobly, he plays the Prelude from Parsifal. As with the other numbers on the program, he executes the music with intense feeling and precise control. There is genuine pathos in the slow section and grandeur in the bigger moments, a kind of grandiloquence that only a huge concert organ in a vast hall can produce (short of a full orchestra).

And so it goes through the rousing melodramatics of The Flying Dutchman, the longing romance of Tristan und Isolde, and the festive thrills of Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg. Albrecht catches many of the nuances of Wagner’s varied and colorful pallette, generating new ways to listen to old favorites. While I would never consider giving up the orchestral versions of Wagner from conductors like Otto Klemperer, Georg Solti, Herbert von Karajan, George Szell, Bernard Haitink, Erich Leinsdorf, Leopold Stokowski, Sir Adrian Boult, and others, I’m glad I heard these organ transcriptions. They can be bewitching in their own way.

No, SACD is not dead. Long live SACD. There’s life in the old format yet, carried on by a small but dedicated number of European record companies like Oehms Classics, who recorded this one in 2012 at St. Nikolai, Kiel, Germany. I listened to the two-track SACD layer, not the multichannel layer, because I have but two stereo speakers in my listening room. However, I can imagine that given the full-blown resonance of the recording, it might sound rather spectacular in multichannel playback. Anyway, in two-channel the organ tends to get a little lost amidst the hall’s natural reverberation, the acoustic slightly blurring the midrange detail. Not that it doesn’t appear realistic, just a little awash in reverb. A moderately distant miking arrangement doesn’t help the instrument’s transparency, either. Still, it’s a big, round, dramatic organ sound, with plenty of dynamic range, bass, and impact, so maybe that makes up for any small lack of clarity. 

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa