The mystical voices - Josef Serafin

The mystical voices - Josef Serafin

Musicon  MSCD 044

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Instrumental

Jakub Sowa: Salve Reginae Misericordiae; Ad te clamamus; Eia ergo advocata nostra; O clemens
Johann Pachelbel: Ciacona
Johann Sebastian Bach: Toccata und Fuge in D minor "Dorian", BWV 538; Toccata, Adagio und Fuge in C major, BWV 564
Marian Sawa: Sonata
Paul Hofhaimer: Salve Regina

Josef Serafin, organ of the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Kamien Pomorski (Cammin)

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Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - February 19, 2017

Another intriguing organ recital from Musicon in Poland. "The Mystical Voices" is played by Józef Serafin, professor at Fryderyk Chopin University of Music, Warsaw and the Academy of Music in Krakóv. He is a popular organist with live performances both east and west and over radio, TV and CD recordings.

This recording was made on a splendid organ in the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral of Kamień Pomorski, in the northwest of Poland. The cathedral was founded by Duke Casimir The First in 1175, a cruciform building of red bricks, except for granite in the north wall of the transept. A three-aisle body of the cathedral was built in gothic style before 1385, and a tower in its western part; this must have influenced the acoustics, now with a smooth, warm ambience and ample deep resonances to support the lower end of the 16' pipe sets. Note that this SACD is one of Musicon's 'True Ambience Series'.

The first mention of a cathedral organ comes from the 14th century. The instrument which has survived until today was built in the 17th century by Fryderyk Breyer. Completed in December 1672, it had 40 voices, including 10 lingual pipes (an organ pipe that is sounded by a vibrating brass strip is otherwise known as a Reed). A magnificent Baroque style casing, with many towers decorated with musical instruments and fruits, was finished in 1683. As with many other European organs, it was later rebuilt and reconstructed, but badly damaged during WW II. The last reconstruction was in 2004; currently the organ has a mechanical tracker, 3 manuals and pedal, and 44 voices (including 8 lingual/reed pipes). It is now one of Poland's official National Historical Monuments. An outline specification and disposition of the organ's contents and disposals is presented in the SACD's booklet.

Józef Serafin’s arrangement of his recital begins and concludes with early pieces based upon the plainsong version of the hymn ‘Salve Regina Misericordae’ (Hail Holy Queen), presenting Renaissance organ player-composers from Poland and German who are little known. Introducing the disc is a work from Jakub Sowa (1545-1593) born in Poland and knifed to death in Sweden. His setting has four short movements, each in a canonic style: a primo line for the plainsong, and a secundo line with accompaniment, voiced with a solo played on a different manual. Eventually, the pedal line begins, played by a thrilling, resonating 16’ voice, making the work effectively become a trio. Serafin voices the piece beautifully, keeping a Renaissance feeling.

Next, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706), a prolific German organist and composer from the late Renaissance. Not only was his work highly regarded during his career, but he is still very popular. He was one of the builders of a South German style, and also introduced much Italian material into his pieces. This is demonstrated in ‘Ciacona’ (Chaconne) in F min, which has various calm melodies above a repeating motif on the pedals, enriched by the use of some of the most attractive organ’s voice combinations available.

One might call the two following pieces by JS Bach a crescendo in Serafin’s recital. Certainly they both illustrate the baroque grandeur of German organ music. JSB’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538 is sometimes called “Dorian” to distinguish it from the other D minor Toccata, BWV 565, which is probably the most popular of all the Bach works these days, yet scholars are still debating if Bach really was its originator.

The virtuoso “Dorian” is a web of allusion to historical organ music and is virtually monothematic – certainly there are suggestions of a fantasia from French motifs over pedal points, but the “Dorian” is more like an Italian concerto-like fantasia in Northern German figuration. Technically, especially in the Toccata, the two parts may well have been used by Bach for his “other” occupation, that of examining of newly built organs. Interestingly the Fuga appears to be earlier than the Toccata.

Serafin’s performing makes full use of the organ; its fleet mechanics, wide range of dynamics, superb articulation, careful mixing of voice colours, vivid and full of energy and rhythm plus marriage of his playing to the active church ambience. One of the most exciting of the “Dorians” I have heard; full of joy and uplifting of the heart.

Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major BWV 564 has four sections. Question and answer solos accompanied by bright mixtures open the Toccata, interrupted by a weighty entry of the pedals. The Adagio is notable with its gentle Italianate melody, one of Bach’s seemingly never stopping type, but a cool entry brings us into the Grave, suddenly presenting anguished fortissimo chords almost plein jeu in volume. There is next a subsidence in volume and increase in speed to the Fuga, its smiling phrases and pauses making for a rhythmically sparkling final section.

Marian Sawa (1937-2005), composer, organist and pedagogue, represents ‘The Present’. His style was a conglomeration of most other styles, from Baroque partitas, fugues, toccatas and Polish folk dances to more autonomous compositions which were radical sonically. Although there is a good deal of dissonance, there is also a thread of expressive idiom. ‘Sonata’ (1985) has seven pieces, three parts of which are bound by a Gregorian motif. Despite the shock of massive full organ chords with crushing dissonance on opening, I found Sawa’s highly original progress was very attractive, bringing old and new to now in novel ways, with amazing use of the organ’s voices. Serafin plays this with great finesse; it is evident that he relishes being let loose on Sawa’s 'Sonata'.

As mentioned at the beginning of the programme, the finale returns us to ‘Salve Regina’ and the Renaissance again, this time by Paul Hofhaimer (1459-1537). The father, brothers, son, and nephews of Paul Hofhaimer were all organists in Salzburg and Innsbruck. In 1489, upon receipt of an offer from the Hungarian court, he was promoted to the position of director of the court chapel at Innsbruck. He enjoyed a considerable reputation as an organist and teacher of organists, so little of his organ music has survived. This may be due in part to a tradition of improvisation of organ music. His 6-part ‘Salve Regina is polyphonic, with the Gregorian cantus firmus wanders from voice to voice, with great beauty. Serafin caresses it with warm and gentle mixtures and solos.

Another star of this disc is a final 25-41 tracks, in which Serafin plays short examples of selected organ voices, first with a couple of named voices (solo and a lower voice on a different console) and then larger and more complex sets, all voices named. This is a splendid idea, appearing in organ recordings far less often than it should. It is a good idea to listen to these first, so that you get a better idea of how the organist has coloured their approach to the music.

Sonically, the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral’s marriage with its slowly expanding organ has been a great success, the building’s church acoustics aiding the organ’s low bass and giving warmth but clarity to the higher ranges. The surround 5.0 mode and 24/96 capture are certainly worthy of Musicon's 'True Ambience Series' for this SACD. There is only a very quiet daily ambience in the Cathedral to be felt rather than heard before the organ starts, and the organ mechanisms are also very quiet.

The music is aided by a glossy paper booklet, in Polish, German and English, with historical facts about the organ and Cathedral, together with handy notes on the composers, several of which are very rare in recording. A brief biography for Józef Serafin shows his multi-task career. A sturdy triple-gated digipak, illustrated with photographs of the magnificently ornate organ case holds the booklet and SACD.

An unusual programme, as played by Józef Serafin with wonderful rhythm, who attains an expressive maturity and virtuoso handling of the organ’s wide range of ranks. Top marks for ‘The Mystical Voices’.

Copyright © 2017 John Miller and


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