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VERSUS - The Garnier Organ

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VERSUS - The Garnier Organ - University of Birmingham - Henry Fairs (Organ) - 802561051626 - Released: August 2017 - Regent REGCD516

1} Johann Sebastian Bach - Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564
2} Nicolaus Bruhns - Chorale Fantasia on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland
3} Franz Danksagmüller - Versus (2014)
4} Jon Laukvik - Via Crucis (1979)
5} Robert Schumann - Four Sketches for Pedal Piano, Op. 58
6} Johann Sebastian Bach - Prelude in C major, BWV 566a

As the booklet notes point out, the main objective of this recording is to showcase the newly built Garnier pipe organ in the Elgar Concert Hall at the University of Birmingham, England. It actually consists of two organs, a main medium-sized 3 manual, 35 stop instrument with the longest pipes at 16', and a small (Mitteltönigeswerk) organ with only 5 stops. The organist is Henry Fairs, organist to the University of Birmingham and Honorary Professor of Organ at the University of St. Andrews, and Head of Organ Studies at the Birmingham Conservatoire.

As you can see from the selection of works, the pieces span five centuries from the 17th to the 21st in no particular order, with pretty well one piece representing each century, which helps to demonstrate the versatility of this Garnier organ, although I doubt it would be suited to late French Romantic works from composers like Widor or Ropartz for example. It well displays its principal stops in the Bach and Bruhns pieces, and reveals its clear voicing and purity of tone most effectively in the Bach Adagio. But it truly manifests its color palette and versatility in the Via Crucis by Norwegian composer Jon Laukvik, a suite of 8 pieces that range from Messiaen influenced rhythm impulses, to slow plainchant inspired evocations from the Middle Ages. And you're in for an impressive display of musicianship and wide array of forces in the final movement of this work, which clearly indicates that this organ could be well suited to recordings of Messiaen's own music. The Four Sketches for Pedal Piano by Robert Schumann provide a complete about-face in both style and sound, as the organ's foundation stops are front and center here. Schumann owned a pedal piano, which is a piano with an organ pedalboard attached to it so that organists could practice their pedal work at home. Schumann composed a few piano pieces for this instrument, which Henry Fairs transfers very well to an actual organ. The fourth piece of the set is typical Schumann and would make a great light addition to any organ concert. The most recent composition on this disc and presented here in its world première recording, is a suite of five verses on the Chorale Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott titled Versus by Franz Danksagmüller. It was actually commissioned for the opening concert of this Garnier organ. It is obviously more concerned with the variety of sounds you can get out of a pipe than actual musical discourse. For example, by playing certain clusters of notes, it actually alters the air pressure enough to shake the bellows and creates a fluttering effect, sort of like what you get when your car's windows are turned down unevenly. This one is performed here on the Mitteltönigeswerk organ. It reminds me quite a bit of the pipe effects attained in (this recording).

Despite having been founded as recently as 1972 by Marc Garnier, this organ building firm applies historically proven techniques and styles in its new instruments. They describe this new opus "as a compromise between the rich plenum of the organs of northern Germany and those of central Germany with the poetry of some stops from the late baroque". The pieces selected for this recording certainly make it full justice. It's a great collection for those of us willing to allow a pipe organ to let its hair (air) down once in a while. Pun intended!

Jean-Yves Duperron - September 2017