Notes and Editorial Reviews
THE NEW AND THE OLD
Isabelle Demers (org)
ACIS 42386 (73:32)
Prelude and Fugue in D
, BWV 532.
Romeo and Juliet:
Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme
To the best of my knowledge, this is Isabelle Demers’s first solo album. She previously
played on a single track,
, for an eponymously titled disc of electronic pieces by Mason Bates. The new CD at hand carries the title
The New and the Old
, which Demers explains in her booklet note as a reference to “three composers who, far from shunning the past, chose to embrace and reinvent
.” I’m not sure exactly what is meant by that, but it would surely seem an unusual program that makes common cause between Bach, Reger, and Prokofiev; or perhaps not. The case for Reger is an easy one. He spent much of his short life emulating Bach through the prism of late 19th- and early 20th-century free chromaticism and extended tonality, dying at 43, reportedly from a heart attack induced by overindulgence in food and drink. Personally, I think it was fugue poisoning.
The case for Prokofiev is a bit more difficult to make, though in his ballet score to
Romeo and Juliet
, it could be argued that some of the biting bitonality he employed to portray the feuding Montagues and Capulets does effectively recreate the
16th-century setting in which the play takes place.
All of this, however, is little more than preamble—foreplay, really—to a very fine recital by an exciting young artist, playing the magnificent 1995 Marcussen & Son organ in the Chapel of St. Augustine at Tonbridge School in Kent. I’m no organ expert, but based on the specifications given in the accompanying booklet this is no small instrument, especially by this maker. Said to be the largest Marcussen in the southeast of England, it’s a four-manual tracker-action instrument with 4,830 pipes and 66 speaking stops, including two 32’ stops. In other words, if you’re looking for an organ disc to rattle the rafters and shake the floor boards, this one should do quite nicely.
But that is secondary—or at least it should be—to the performances. Of uncertain date, but most likely from his Weimar period (1708–17), Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D Major, BWV 532, is one of his most often played and best-known organ works. The prelude, episodic in nature with its sectional alternations in keyboard and pedal figurations and rapid changes in registration and texture, is suggestive of Buxtehude, which jibes with Demers’s assertion that the piece belongs to the composer’s very early Weimar years. Demers’s judicious choice of stops and her exceptionally clean voicing, aided by Acis’s clear, tightly focused recording, make for very satisfying modern Bach played in the manner of organists like Simon Preston and Michael Murray.
No comparison is to be made for Demers’s own arrangement of seven numbers from Prokofiev’s
Romeo and Juliet
, for this is an entirely unique creation. It certainly puts the Marcussen organ through its paces and highlights the artist’s technical skills, both as performer and arranger. I was struck by how often some of these numbers, like “Romeo at the Fountain” and “The Duke’s Command,” arranged in this way for solo organ, reminded me of isolated passages from Poulenc’s Organ Concerto. It’s hardly surprising given that Prokofiev crossed paths with Poulenc in Paris, and though he was loath to admit much of a friendship with the French composer, the score to
Romeo and Juliet
was, I believe, the last major work he wrote in Paris (1935–36) before returning to the Soviet Union. Poulenc’s Organ Concerto was taking shape at the same time (1934–38); and while I’m not suggesting that one directly influenced the other, Prokofiev was most assuredly aware of the activities of Les Six, of which Poulenc was a member.
Variations, and Fugue on an Original Theme
in F?-Minor has not been one of the composer’s more popular works. Still, it has managed to garner four other recordings, none of which, I’m sorry to say, I’ve heard. Composed in 1903, the piece was branded “crazy and completely unplayable,” a score in which “there is more ink than paper.” Demers calls it Reger’s “wildest work for organ,” and I wouldn’t contradict her. To my ear, the music is a kaleidoscope through which pass the bent and broken rays of Bach’s virtuosic organ preludes and toccatas, alternating with fragmentary bits and pieces from his quieter, contemplative chorale preludes. It’s quite a dizzying display to listen to, but being one who actually likes Reger, I found it spellbinding. And while I can’t tell you if Demers plays it as well as or better than Gerd Zacher, Willem Tanke, Martin Wetzel, or Bernard Hass, I can say that she sounds mighty impressive.
This is a brilliantly played program and a superbly produced CD. Demers has my ear, and she should yours too. Organ lovers, revel.
FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
Works on This Recording
Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532 by Johann Sebastian Bach
Isabelle Demers (Organ)
Written: 1708-1717; Germany
Venue: Chapel of Saint Augustine, Tonbridge Sch
Length: 11 Minutes 2 Secs.
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