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Pictures from Russia - Albrecht

Pictures from Russia - Albrecht

Oehms Classics  OC 632

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental


Hansjorg Albrecht (organ)


The man most certainly does not need to be introduced, as Hansjörg Albrecht meanwhile has become one of the great organ players of his generation. One of his specialities is that he transcribes works originally not written to be played on the organ at all. OehmsClassics has already published excerpts from Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung as well as the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. For his third recording of works transcribed for organ, Hansjörg Albrecht decided to take on some Russian classicists, and so we can now enjoy listening to Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures of an Exhibition. The composer originally wrote his cycle for the piano; Maurice Ravel added an arrangement for orchestra. Sergey Rachmaninov, however, expressly wrote his Isle of the Dead for an entire orchestra. This symphonic poem is a musical rendering of Arnold Böcklin’s famous picture with the same title. In 1911, Igor Stravinsky in his turn caused an absolute scandal with his Petrushka, arranged for a large orchestra: the motor rhythms seemed too bold indeed. As was the case for the previous recordings, the recordings are high-end SACD recordings.

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Review by John Miller - August 6, 2014

Hansjörg Albrecht is one of our most versatile and technically gifted organists, an expert at concocting programmes or even creating them from his own often spectacular arrangements of symphonic music. The contents of this album fall into the latter category, in which he visits some well-known Russian music. Mussorgsky's 'Pictures from an Exhibition' is regarded as one of the most challenging pieces in the repertoire and appears here in Albrecht's own transcription for organ. He has also captured the essence of Stravinsky's brilliant and unorthodox orchestration of the ballet music of 'Petrouchka', extracting three of its dances for treatment on the organ. Rachmaninov's moody and more Romantic orchestral tone-poem, based on a painting itself, appears in a transcription by Axel Langmann.

The resources at Albrecht's disposal are formidable. St Nikolai's church in Kiel boasts a Great Organ by Kleuker in 1965 (three manuals & pedal, 48 registers) and the Cavaillé-Coll-Mutin Organ, rescued from North France. Although of a modest size compared with the great Cavaillé-Coll organs in French cathedrals, it has a characteristic French symphonic style of disposition and also acts as a choir-organ with 17 registers. The instruments are sited at either end of the nave, or at least they are so depicted in the OEHMS 5.1 channel recording, with, I assume, the higher-powered Kleuker in the front channels with the smaller Cavaillé-Coll from the surround speakers, although the very ample resonant space of the church melds all the sounds into a sensational surround-sound experience.

The huge dynamic range and range of instrumental colour from these co-joined organs is staggering. Use of the two organs was facilitated by a fairly recent electrification of the consoles, a single console now being able to play both organs simultaneously. Transcription for this double-organ requires technical skills beyond the norm, in having to play on three manuals at once, manage rapid registry changes and pull combination stops, use the pedal board and operate the swell box, amongst many other considerations such as page-turning. Some of this, of course, can be taken up by recorded programming on the console. Alberich rises to the challenges in bringing these organ transcriptions to life, with spectacular use of the organs' colourful ranks and effect stops.

Mussorgsky's virtuoso piano piece is almost ideal for transcribing. Many varieties of arrangements exist. Ravel's opulent orchestral one is, of course, the best-known one, almost obscuring the original. Structured like a suite, Mussorgsky wrote his 'Pictures' in memory of his friend, the architect, draughtsman and painter Viktor Alexandrovich Hartmann, in the form of a set of movements based on selected Hartmann paintings. These are linked by an unforgettable tune representing the gallery-goer's transit between pictures. If anything, the work benefits by Albrecht's vivid use of tone colours and use of some unusual sounds from registers which are hardly ever heard as solo stops, especially in their lowest region. As an example, listen to the steady trudge of the oxen and rumble of the Bydlo cart's slow approach then recession, using 32' ranks in unusual but picaresque use, and one can even hear clanking of the large cowbells imitated. Following this, Albrecht's conjuring of a paradoxically-named 'The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks' brings a brilliant, sparkling Mendelssohnian texture, as light as chicks could be after their birth!

The middle piece in this album's programme is another Russian piece based on a painting, in this case
'The Isle of the Dead', title of a famous painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin, who produced five versions between 1880 and 1886. Rachmaninov's orchestral tone poem muses over the sounds suggested by the picture. Across the bows of a rowing boat there lies a coffin with a statuesque body shrouded in white cloth. Seated behind the corpse is the ferryman, rowing slowly over the water. The idea of the soft sound of oars dipping into the quiet water is brought out beautifully in the orchestral version, but I was disappointed by Langmann's setting which is frankly slow and tedious for most of the time, not bringing out the many lyrical lines which make up so much of Rachmaninov's writing style. Compare Rachmaninoff: Symphonies 1-3 - de Waart or Rachmaninoff: The Isle of the Dead, Symphonic Dances - Jurowski and hear how more clearly etched and emotional the original orchestration is.

Stravinsky on the organ? Hard to imagine this until you hear Albrecht's version of three dances from the the antics of the puppet dolls which make up Stravinsky's 'Petrouchka'. The grotesqueries, legion of dissonances and extraordinary rhythms of the composer are well-projected by the two connected organs, with some seductive pipe-work and 32' pipes at their lowest region. A lot of fun is to be had with scincillating changes of register and the joyful ending at the Shrove Tide market even includes triangle and cymbal registers, not used much these days.

You would be correct to expect special attention be given to recording two enormous music-makers in a large church acoustic. It really demands multichannel to get the best all-round experience, and as loud as you can play it too. At high dynamic level, you can hear the resonance of the Nikolai (about 5 secs, but never obscuring fine textures). There is, as expected, some background noise at these levels, probably from the blowers.

If you are adventuresome in organ music, this will be an essential purchase in terms of virtuoso playing and skilful transcription-making (from Albrecht at least) and certainly as a dazzling sonic experience, with excellent notes as well.

Copyright © 2014 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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