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Nørgård: The Organ Book, Canon - Christensen

Nørgård: The Organ Book, Canon - Christensen

Dacapo Records  6.220656

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Nørgård: Preludio Féstivo, 5 Organ Chorales, Op. 12, Preludes and Chorale Preludes for the Hymn Året (The Year), Krist Stod Op Af Døde (Christ Rose Up From The Dead), Sommerpræludium (Summer Prelude), Jeg Ved et Evigt Himmerig (An Eternal Paradise I Know), Den Signede Fryd (O Blessed Joy), Toccata 'Libra', Canon

Jens E. Christensen (organ of Our Saviour's Church, Copenhagen)


Throughout his long and influential composing life Per Nørgård (b. 1932) has had an extensive relationship with the organ. On this recording the renowned organist Jens E. Christensen performs both The Organ Book, an evocative collection of shorter pieces suitable for use in church services, and the overwhelming Canon, a large-scale organ work characterized by its infinity series and golden rhythmic proportions.

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Review by John Miller - September 13, 2017

Per Nørgård (b. 1932) was 17 years old when he became a private student with Danish composer Vagn Holmboe, who, unusually, sent him to learn the organ as well as doing his theoretic work. The chosen one was in a church, Sankt Jacob Church in Copenhagen, and soon Nørgård was playing all the religious music there while his organ tutor, the organist, was away for some time. To Nørgård, learning and performing sacred organ music was an early stage in which he developed a unique musical philosophy with science, astrology and cosmology from east and west, past and present.

Nørgård was asked, by a 2007 organ magazine, "How do you see the function of music in the church?" He first praised old sacred organ material by remarking "A thousand years of notation: my terra firma!", then he gave a very honest further statement; "Since I've written melodies for several hymns - one 'approved' - of course I see congregational singing as just as important as absolute music. Unfortunately I probably have a more 'touristic' relationship with ritual/liturgy".

Following the tenets of these views about organ music, throughout his long and influential composing life Per Nørgård has had an extensive relationship with the organ. In this SACD the renowned organist Jens E. Christensen performs both The Organ Book (2015), an evocative collection of shorter pieces suitable for use in church services, and the overwhelming Canon (1970), a large-scale organ work characterized by its infinity series and 'golden' rhythmic proportions.

The organ used is in the Church of Our Saviour, one of Denmark's most famous churches. It is easily spotted in Copenhagen's skyline, as its helix spire has external winding that can be climbed to the top. King Christian V laid the consecrated stone for a new church in 1682, and it was completed in 1696, with a capacity of nearly a thousand seats.

Organs have two main parts; the first is a façade or casing. The magnificent façade of the Baroque organ case on the west wall of the church is likely one of the most photographed music instruments in the world. It has five main towers. Their ornaments and statues were made in 1698 by the stucco-worker & wood-carver Christian Merger. Dacapo Records have provided a wonderful photograph of the soaring top of the casement ending just under an arch on the wall behind, while at the bottom the casement draws aside into two massively rich terminations either side of the arched door in the wall.

Below these terminations, there are two sculpt-white Elephants, each bearing a gold-trimmed blue caparison. Some visitors think that these animals were able to carry the weight of the whole façade! However, church founder King Christian V was also the founder of the most prestigious order in Denmark in 1693 - The Order of the Elephant - which influenced the symbolic decoration of the Church of Our Saviour. Clearly, an organ is both a visible and an audible work of craftsmanship!

Behind the façade, the second part of the organ is a three-story set of pipeworks and their mechanisms, built by the Botzen brothers in 1696-98. Although the instrument was added to and re-organised over the ages, as usually happens, care was taken in modifications. The organ was restored in 1965 by the organ builder Poul-Gerhard Andersen, who made the old pipeworks sound again. Before this, the pipes had been silent since 1889 and served only as decoration.

The organ now has more than 4000 pipes, with the original 'cymbelstern' tinkling in the background during a special part of a music piece. To manage this organ there are 57 stops, spread over 4 consoles, plus pedals. A full deposition (list of stops in each console) is listed in the booklet of the disc.

Jens E. Christensen, organist from 1989, has premiered 80 pieces in the church, including some of Nørgård’s. In the pieces from 'The Organ Book' his registration is relatively soft and melodic; in many the flute stops in their various ranges dominate, together with a 32 or 16 ft pedal giving a foundation. The results are fascinating, often very beautiful, switching between standard harmonics and some more modernistic zones with atonals in the fantasy-varying of the chorale.

Nørgård's 'Organ Book' is a collection of small pieces of sacred music, some composed while he was doing his organ training. The style is for simple melodic lines, most from Baroque chorales, often far from the more complex harmonic and rhythmic components of later 'infinity series' which creates the possibility of resonantly tonal centres across a large-scale work, as illustrated in the other piece on this disc, 'Canon'. There are 17 Preludes and Chorale Fantasias (1955-2014), the first 'Preludio Féstivo', for the marriage of friends of the composer.

Try listening to the 'Intrada for organ' op. 111a, by Sibelius (1925), then compare first piece of the Organ Book, Preludio Féstivo by Nørgård (1956); you will have a fine example of Nørgård's love for the Finnish maestro which has continued through his life.

Per Nørgård’s earliest organ work is 'Five Organ Chorales' composed in 1955, now in the 'Organ Book'. A pupil at the Copenhagen Boys’ Choir School, Per Nørgård was brought up in the Protestant church where organ music was very important. The chorales were early German ones (12th-16th), and are worked simply, with several variants and/or fantasias. The hymns are treated like core voices enveloped in polyphonic contra-parts. Singers or instrumentalists could be used, but of course the organ solo is used here.

Jens E. Christensen, organist from 1989, has premiered 80 pieces in the church, including some of Nørgård’s. In the pieces from 'The Organ Book' his registration is relatively soft and melodic; in many the flute stops in their various ranges dominate, together with 32 or 16 ft pedals giving a foundation. The results are intriguing, often very beautiful, switching between standard harmonics and some more modernistic zones with atonals in the fantasy-varying of the chorale.

'Canon' (1971) is one of Nørgård’s largest independent organ works, and therefore not in 'The Organ Book'. Some paragraphs of Christensen's excellent booklet for the disc are given to the rather complex version of "infinity series" which mathematically serialize melody, harmony, and rhythm in musical composition. In fact, Canon is divided into 7 Cycles, each of which 8 sub-cycles. The booklet has a page showing fragments of the Canon score and labelled "the proportional version in the metric version, Cycle 1" and the similar score in the metric version. If you have heard some of Nørgård’s symphonies which are made in "infinity series", you will be able to understand 'Canon' better.

It begins as a ‘Creation’, the second cycle is more motoric, the third inward-looking, the fourth grotesque; the fifth involves a contrast between day and night moods (forte and piano), leading on to an overwhelming breakthrough after which the piece takes its leave in the seventh cycle and returns to its starting point and the low F.

Jens E. Christensen himself has commented on the acoustics of Church of Our Saviour; the ground plan is an equally-armed Greek cross (length 56.3m, breadth 49.9m, height 21.5m. I've been in that church and listened to its organ there, so I can easily agree with his statement that "these measures provide a wonderful acoustic acoustic, combining poetic reverberanc with transparent clarity".

Editing, mix, mastering and producing was hosted by the highly-regarded Preben Iwan (he is in two phographs with Christensen while during the recording session; Iwan's image is very rarely seen in the back of Dacapo booklets). Technically: recorded in the DXD audio format (Digital eXtreme Definition), 352.8 kHz/32bit. Microphone main array: 3x DPA 4006TL. + 2 DPA4011TL for surround channels (5.0). Pyramix DAW system with HAPI preamp/converter and Tango Controller. I noticed how clear and true the high frequencies, probably partly the presence of both DXD and a superb acoustic.

Somehow, the simplistic drawing on the cover of this SACD catches the eye. Approximately, it was made by Helle Rahbek Nørgråd, composer's wife. It has a lot to go for; a most interesting contrast between two pieces, the first showing Nørgård’s influence of Sibelius and reverence to very old Christian hymns, the second imposing his "modern" varieties of infinity series on the organ, which was difficult for both composer and organist. I highly recommend this to organ lovers or affinity to Nørgråd, and to those who would like to start the so-called modernistic music, as both pieces are easy listenable.

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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