Recording information: Vilnius, Dominikanerkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Sveksna, Pfarrkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Vilnius, Johanneskirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Kretinga, Lutherische Kirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Dotnuva, Klosterkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Kretinga, Franziskanerkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Vabalninkas, Pfarrkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Tytuvenai, Klosterkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008); Pumpenai, Pfarrkirche (08/17/2008-08/21/2008).
R E V I E W:
Especially rewarding for those interested in the organ-builder’s art
What an intriguing idea, a series of recordings based on organs of different cities, regions and countries. MDG have already given us the organsRead more of Vienna, Jerusalem Pomerania (see
review), Carinthia, Latvia (see
review) and Portugal, among others. Now it’s the turn of Lithuania, whose many instruments are well represented in this new volume. The music ranges from the 17
th to the 20
th century, all of it performed by the multi-talented organist Martin Rost. Apart from his regular post as director of music at the Church of St Mary, Stralsund, he is also responsible for a number of organ restoration projects.
Rost is the organist in four of the Organ Landscape discs, for which he has also provided exhaustive notes. In this latest instalment he provides a potted political and religious history of Lithuania, as well as detailing the work of various organ-building ‘schools’ from the 18
th century onwards. The first instrument on this disc, in the
Monastery Church, Tytuvenai, was designed and built by Nicolaus Jantzon (1720-1791). It was restored by Latvian organ builders specifically for this recording. Appropriately enough, Rost has chosen music from the so-called Warsaw Tablature, a collection of largely anonymous pieces collected in the second half of the 17
th century. The Prelude in G shows off the instrument’s robust but nicely rounded tone; the arias, ballet and dances, all high baroque in character, are elegantly played.
The 1617 organ of the Franciscan Church, Kretinga, was Lithuania’s oldest until it was destroyed in 1941. What we hear on this disc is a salvaged, partly restored, 17
th-century instrument; the music is culled from the oldest collection of organ music in Lithuania, the
Organ Book of Kraziai, assembled at the Jesuit College, Kraziai. In Rost’s capable hands these pieces emerge as if freshly minted. It’s not the quietest of organs, but it has a pleasing clarity and brightness of tone. The writing is florid but never cloying, the lower registers surprisingly rich and weighty. Hardly rafter-rattling, but then the instrument suits the solemn, rather intimate, nature of this music.
Vilnius and its churches suffered at the hands of Swedish troops in the Great North Wars of the early 18
th century. To deal with that, and the aftermath of several major fires, the so-called ‘Vilnius school’ of organ builders was created. An early instrument, in the city’s Dominican Church, was destroyed in one of those conflagrations and was replaced by Adam Gottlob Casparini (1715-1788). It’s bigger than any of the organs we’ve heard thus far, with a wider and more subtle colour palette, but ongoing restoration work has restricted the scale of the pieces played here. It’s an all-too-brief selection from the Warsaw Tablature, including a delicate Canzona in G, attributed to Frescobaldi. I suspect when it’s fully restored this will be an instrument to savour.
According to Rost most of Lithuania’s 400-plus organs were built between 1860 and 1940. The instrument in Kretinga’s Lutheran Church, installed in 1899, is heard here not in late-Romantic repertoire but in baroque-style pieces by Friedrich Wilhelm Markull and Christian Podbielski. In particular, the filigreed writing of the latter’s
Arioso un poco andante comes over very well indeed. As always Rost manages to bring out each organ’s individual sound, no mean feat in a collection as wide-ranging as this. Here, though, the character of the instrument – and the music played – may be a little too austere for some. That said, the recording remains clear and well focused throughout.
The organ in the Monastery Church, Dotnuva, is a curious affair. Built in the early 19
th-century by Brother Modest Mikniewicz it may seem crude next to professionally designed instruments, but it comes across as reasonably rich and well-rounded. The sound only becomes opaque in Bogunski’s Intonation in C; thankfully, matters improve in the witty little Andante that follows, suggesting that while this is an instrument of limited abilities it can be made to sound reasonably sophisticated. The pipes contain plenty of lead, so I wonder what that will mean for this organ, given the EU’s latest Directive on this controversial issue.
As Rost makes clear in his notes the history of Lithuania’s organs is the history of Lithuania itself. That includes the period of Soviet occupation – from 1940 onwards – in which churches were closed or assigned more utilitarian roles. Only in the 1960s were they re-established, with important organ restoration following in the 1970s and 1980s. The main and Oginski Chapel organs of St John’s Church, Vilnius, are products of this renaissance; the smaller instrument has a pleasing, slightly reedy, sound that suits the chosen music very well, whereas the larger one has considerably more heft. Home-grown organist, composer and pedagogue Jan Naujalis features in three pieces here. They are large in scale, but Rost’s unerring sense of proportion and scale means they are never overpowering. Pleasing music, albeit a touch anodyne.
As much as I came to admire this disc and the thinking behind it I did have doubts about some of the music chosen. No real quibbles about the very early works, which are entirely appropriate for the older instruments, but the Naujalis, Sokulski and Moniuszko pieces are on the dull side. Again, I suppose one needs to be reminded of the philosophy behind this MDG series, which is to offer a historical perspective rather than set off a battery of organ fireworks. Approached in that spirit this collection is likely to be much more rewarding.
The Bruno Goebel organ of the Parish Church, Sveksna, dates from the early 1900s, as do the
Fourteen Organ Preludes of Lithuanian painter-composer M K Ciurlionis. This music is probably best described as Scriabinesque, with dense, swirling harmonies that are apt to clot at times. The mysticism of East Prussian composer /organist Max Gulbins is Christian, his Passion one of several meditations on episodes from the Bible. It’s a sombre piece, weighed down by rather too much Protestant piety. I can only assume this dark-hued repertoire was chosen because it’s contemporaneous, but I don’t feel it tells us very much about the Sveksna organ itself.
The long-lived organ-builder Martyna MasaIskis (1858-1954) installed the Pumpenai instrument in 1899. It comes across well, broad an deep with plenty of charm and character in its finer details. Just sample Cesar Cui’s lovely Prelude in A flat major, which seems as if it’s illuminated from within. Not the sort of music one associates with the ‘Mighty Handful’, but a delight none the less. The two pieces by Ceslovas Sasnauskas may be more majestic but they are far less memorable. That said, they do underline the organ’s many virtues, especially its range of colours. Rost rounds off with four more Ciurlionis preludes, the first and last of which reveal the organ’s bell-like upper register.
The final instrument in this collection, from the Parish Church, Vabalninkas, is a three-manual organ built by Juazopas Radovicius around 1890. Ciurlionis’s Chorale Fugue, transcribed from a piano original, is light and airy compared with some of his preludes. The instrument also has a lovely, pellucid sound in its higher registers, not to mention a hint of bass heft in Naujalis’s understated Malda (A Prayer).
In fact ‘understated’ describes this disc perfectly. As I suggested earlier it’s more of a historical document than a set of showpieces, and in that sense it will surely appeal to aficionados more interested in the organ-builder’s art than the organist’s keyboard skills. This, allied with a consistently good recording and fascinating notes, makes for a most rewarding issue. It’s certainly piqued my interest in the series, the rest of which are on my wish list.