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:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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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.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa