Site review by Geohominid June 5, 2009
|The finest international organists have practically queued to visit the Church of Saint-Ouen at Rouen for recording and playing recitals on its famous Cavaillé-Coll organ - one of the few which has survived unmodified since its installation in 1890. Kalevi Kiviniemi has long harboured a passion for Cavaillé-Coll organs and the music which was written for them. Together with Mika Koivusalo, a recording engineer with specialist experience in producing SA-CD surround sound organ recordings, he has produced a disc which is an ideal introduction to the world of Cavaillé-Coll's symphonic organ sound.
Kiviniemi's programme has been carefully thought out and arranged to display as much of the organ's glorious power, tone colour and flexibility as possible. He includes works by composer/organists closely allied to Cavaillé-Coll; Marcel Dupré (1886-1971), Henri Nibelle (1883-1966), César Franck (1822-1890), Alexander Guilmant (1837-1911) and Charles-Marie Widor (1844-1937). There are also four of his own improvisations. As with most of his discs, he writes his own booklet notes about the organ and music in a lucid and insightful way, clearly showing his enthusiasm for this project.
Using a minimal microphone set-up, Koivusalo has captured this magnificent instrument and the fine acoustics of its large Gothic home with astonishing fidelity. Organs and their buildings are inseparable, forming a single musical entity, and this recording manages to capture that synergy, giving a multi-channel experience which places the listener right inside the building. Saint-Ouen has a very pure acoustic, in the sense that its reverberation time of several seconds is a clean decay, lacking the mélange of hard echoes found in many other large spaces. Thus the organ sound remains full of detail, even though heard from an appropriate distance. This organ has a huge dynamic range, ably reproduced on this recording. When the full pedal department enters, the deep bass is purely visceral and thrilling enough to raise hairs on the back of the listener's neck. This is not a disc for the faint-hearted, but at the risk of loosing neighbours it can be played at high volume levels, where it just sounds even more exciting.
The high phase-coherence of the 5 channels provides the brain with subtle psychoacoustic clues about the building's interior together with the perspective position of the organ and its various departments; I could sense approximately how far away the walls were and had a feeling of the church's great height even before reading the dimensions of the long, rather narrow building in the booklet. This disc is a tangible vindication of the use of a multichannel system with SA-CD, and simply the best demonstration disc for organ I have encountered, not to mention its high musical values.
There is a constant ambient noise floor, the soft-breathing sound of an ancient building late at night, with the organ blowers running. Rather than being distracting, this adds to the listener's feeling of presence at the performance. In editing, Koivusalo has avoided the usual zero signal inter-tracks, but thoughtfully dovetailed the low-level ambience so that the tracks run together as though this was a single-take live recital, adding much to the realism of the experience.
Kiviniemi seems to be completely at home on this organ, which is in fine fettle. His peerless technique, tasteful registrations and boundless enthusiasm for the late Romantic music on offer are evident in every bar. He begins with three improvisations in homage to Cavaillé-Coll himself, Marcel Dupré (a former organist at Saint-Ouen) and Madame Dupré. Improvisation was for long an essential skill for organists, but is now falling out of use. Kiviniemi's astonishing improvisations sound like previously written pieces with clear structures and brilliant technical and textural devices. They make a spectacular opening portrait of the organ's capabilities. It is a privilege to eavesdrop on a consummate musician composing and playing on the wing, the music never to be repeated.
Other highlights of the programme include Marcel Dupré's 'Annonciation', Op. 56, where we hear the gentle side of the organ, a soft Clarinet solo supported by gentle Bourdons murmuring angelic benedictions. In Marcel Dupré's unique 'Vitrail' Kiviniemi recreates the composer/organist's poetic description of the Rosace window on the north transept of the church and its kaleidoscopic play of light. 'Vitrail' ends movingly in a blaze of glory as if the full sunlight had finally streamed through the medieval stained glass, staining the floor with a flood of colour.
In Henri Nibelle's Toccata, its bubbling, frothing opening without pedals demonstrates a finely-controlled crescendo, building tension as the pedal department enters, to final release with the full organ, three short, massive chords with silences between, which Kiviniemi times perfectly to replenish the church's sound as it decays, to moving effect.
Widor's pieces are given their full impact in superbly controlled and compelling performances, Kiviniemi again exulting at the sheer enjoyment of playing this unmodified Cavaillé-Coll. The ubiquitous Toccata (Symphonie 5, Op. 42/1) gained enormous popularity after appearing at the wedding of a British Royal Princess. Kiviniemi picks up this tired old warhorse, shakes it by the scruff of the neck and rides it down the finishing strait to victory. I have never heard such a propulsively jubilant and thrilling performance.
The substantial booklet is in Finnish and English, and apart from Kiviniemi's historical commentary, it is graced by a number of fine colour photographs taken by recording engineer Mika Koivusalo. The towered organ case is mainly that of the previous organ, and one view peers over the top of the case, showing the working pipes behind and the horizontally arrayed Trumpets "en Chamade" as in Spanish organs. One can even see the thick dust covering these undisturbed parts! Another photograph shows us the lower part of the console with the Barker Lever, a British invention adopted by Cavaillé-Coll, allowing better wind control and making possible the dazzlingly fast playing style by lightening the keyboard touch. Organ specifications are also supplied. My only tiny cavil is that the booklet must have been too large to accommodate a track list, so one has to bring the CD case to the listening position.
I have no doubt that this is a very special issue; there are many RBCDs of music from Saint-Ouen's Cavaillé-Coll, but this multichannel 5.0, high definition PCM SA-CD presents it in its true sonic glory. Kivininemi's documentation and playing are authoritative and utterly compelling. A very special disc, not to be missed.
Copyright © 2009 John Miller and SA-CD.net