OrganOrgan - Ville Urponen
Alba Records ABCD 298
Classical - Instrumental
Maasalo, Raitio, Granlund
Ville Urponen (organ)
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Review by John Miller - December 19, 2016
As a former lecturer of Biological Oceanography (amongst other things), I was amazed to see several jellyfish as the subject of Alba's cover; a single one is printed on the disc. Pale, soft colours and organisation indicates paintings rather than photography. The disc has a single jellyfish hood which is centred around the central hole. This represents the stomach, around which are arranged four darker gonads, indicating Aurelia aurita (Moon Jelly), a species which is common in the Baltic Sea and Bothnian Gulf, often in such numbers as to cause maritime problems. We learn nothing about the music.
The unique title "OrganOrgan" (not 'UrutUrut' which is the Finnish) is an addition to this rather puzzling presentation. This title is ambiguous; are there two organs or two discs?
Ville Urponen, a musician with a considerable international reputation as well as a musical doctorate, is the current organist at St Martin's, Turku (Martin being Martin Luther; hence the church is Lutheran). Further, he has a great interest in musicology, which provided the grounds for this SACD programme. Ville produced a fine commentary for the disc booklet, outlining the history of the organ in Finland and giving notes on each track. For much of the time covered, there was only a handful of organs in the whole of Finland, and a correspondingly small group of organists, who only began to receive training during the latter part of the C19th. Previous to that, organists in Finland could only be trained by going to Germany (mostly Leipzig) or later to France (Paris).
From his overall story, Ville takes a specific musical period. This starts around 1910, before which the entire use of organs in church was liturgical. He introduces to us a group of composers who began to produce concert-style pieces for recitals on church organs, as part of a nation-wide development in the Arts. Naturally this change was initially disregarded by many Lutheran clerics and congregations, despite the fact that in the various churches in which he worked, the deeply-religious JS Bach played non-liturgical virtuosic evening organ concerts, which were very popular.
In Finland, organs were constructed at a greater rate in the early C19th, thus requiring more instruments and training of players. Two prime teaching institutions, the precentor-organist school in Turku (1878) and the Helsinki Music Institute (1882) were set up, and their students eventually began to write non-sacred organ pieces to be played in churches. These were generally sweet and simple, except for Finland's premier organist Oskar Merikanto's Concert Fantasia (1890) and Fantasia and Chorale (1899). The composer-organists from around 1910 were mostly taught for some time by Merikanto. Together with other secular composers during this period, they were urged to write music which was on a grand scale, in order to show patriotism in response to the long-term Russian invasion (Finland was at that time still in the Russian Empire). The basic style adopted was Late Romantic but in many cases the composers adapted to various Modernistic styles later on.
Ville Urponen introduces us to three of the "pioneers" of full-scale secular works from Finland which truly challenged organ players in content and technique:-
Armas Maasalo (1885-1960) - Tema con variazioni Op. 35 (first played in 1926). Based on a hymn tune by Maasalo himself (Autumn hymn), this powerful work blazes out suddenly to startle the listener with a row of massive chords in full organ, separated by roulades of lighter registration. The following variations show interesting use of the wide range of stops in the various pipe ranks (which are listed in the booklet). Ville Urponen's opinion of this piece "is one of the finest Finnish organ works of all time", to which I must agree. In contrast, Massalo's Sonata in C minor Op. 5 (1913), in three movements, shows a wider use of tonal colour, dynamics and melodies, for which Maasalo was renowned. This piece is a World Premiere Recording on this SACD.
Väinö Raitio (1891-1845) - his Legenda Op.20/1 (1922-3) shows evidence of Raitio's organ studies in France, and his use of the organ is virtually orchestral. The instruction 'Adagio fantastico' sums up the piece, with its gentle start, expanding with great tension as if being assailed by an angry giant. Raitio's Canzonetta (1935) has delightful textures, including a simple song on the celesta stop, against a background of rippling flutes.
John Grunland (1888-1962) is the maverick of this group. During his studies in Leipzig it was considered that he "would no doubt be of great importance in his homeland". However, he left his first post in Hanko in 1921 after only 9 months. He wrote to a former Leipzig teacher "it is said that the organ is a dead instrument and that is not possible to perform on it with emotion; and that is in some way quite true". In his younger days he composed some works for the organ, but then turned almost completely to the choral side of music and more modernistic style.
Grundland's Passacaglia (1915) begins very quietly with a gentle flowing melody, contrasting registers very effectively, and it builds up to a grand-textured climax. This is a World Premiere Recording. The Organ Sonata in B minor (1917-1920?) starts with full organ and the 3 movements are mainly in Classical Sonata structure, but he is clumsy in changing from section to section. Nevertheless, his colourful registrations and attractive melodies make his Sonata well worth listening to - as described by Ville Urponen, his music was a culmination of the Late Romantic Style. The Sonata is a World Premiere Recording also.
Urponen himself plays these early non-liturgical virtuosic concert pieces on the Kangasala organ in St Martin's with an understanding of their context which brings out their pioneering impressively. His virtuosic response to fast scales on consoles and pedals is very clear. Climaxes using the swell are done most effectively, building up tension smoothly, which is very important to these pieces. And he chooses very well from the considerable range of registrations in the three consoles and pedal.
Sonically, in 5.0 mode, Mika Koivusalo's engineering produces a thrilling 3-D sound of St. Martin's Church with its large arched space. The sheer power of the organ at plein jeu is conveyed without any distortion, and at the other end of dynamics the detailed sound of beautiful soft solo pipes is gorgeously transparent. The groups of the pedal section are cleanly articulated, adding to clear focus at the sound from the space in the building which Koivusalo has located for you. Given an electro-pneumatic action, background sound is low in volume and frequency. To strengthen the illusion of the listener to be transported to the church, Koivusalo, as usual, keeps the background running through the gaps between tracks.
Forget the jellyfish and the title, which don't attract you as a potential buyer of this SACD. The disc gives you an interesting history of the organ in Finland and illustrates it by giving you some very interesting Late Romantic pieces which were the first non-liturgical ones in Finnish churches. With splendid playing and realistic recording, Urponen and Koivusalo had a top-class organ in an ideal space. Organ fans need to have this recording.
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