DEBUSSY: La Mer; RAVEL: Lever du Jour; Valses Nobles et Sentimentales Nos. 2 & 3; La Valse; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Boléro – Gunnar Idenstam, arr. & performer on organ of Eglise St.-Martin de Dudelange, Luxembourg – BIS

DEBUSSY: La Mer (three symphonic sketches); RAVEL: Lever du Jour (from Daphnis et Chloé); Valses Nobles et Sentimentales Nos. 2 & 3; La Valse; Pavane pour une infante défunte; Boléro – Gunnar Idenstam, arranger & performer on organ of Eglise St.-Martin de Dudelange, Luxembourg – BIS multichannel SACD BIS-2049, 73:46 [Distr. by Naxos] [7/1/14] *****:

This may be a first. While various organists have transcribed favorite orchestral and piano pieces for their instrument, Debussy and Ravel usually haven’t gotten that treatment. Swedish organist and composer Idenstam says these half dozen works fascinated him so much that he simply wanted to be able to play them on his pipe organ, so he went to all the effort required to transcribe these works, or excerpts from the works in a couple cases. Both French composers are known for extracting some amazing sounds from the full symphony orchestra—sort of a French version of what Rimsky-Korsakov had done in his orchestrations. So the effort was quite a challenge for Idenstam.

He had considered arranging Debussy’s La Mer ever since he was in school in Paris, but always ended up putting it aside, thinking it just wasn’t possible. But now he has special computer software for musical notation and says this has made it finally possible to achieve his dreams. Neither composer ever wrote anything for the pipe organ, so Idenstam had a major challenge to do justice to their music in this new form.

Both the Ravel Pavane as well as the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales were originally composed for the piano, and then the composer orchestrated them from that. Idenstam based his arrangements of these pieces on the piano versions, while taking into account Ravel’s orchestrations. He followed a list of which registers on the organ corresponded to which sections in the orchestra. For example, when there were harp glissandi he used the Flute harmonique registration on the Positif, with tremulant.

I too feel that La Mer is one of the greatest impressionistic orchestral works ever written, and was fascinated by what Idenstam has done with it on the organ. Perhaps it is just too richly detailed and orchestrated to come across perfectly on the pipe organ, but certain parts of it seemed to be unusually colorful and appropriate.  I felt the other shorter works on the album worked out better on the organ. The organ, whose disposition is detailed in the note booklet, was originally built in 1912 and then rebuilt in 2002. In 1962 the wind pressure was reduced and the fourth keyboard was added. It synthesizes elements of French, English and German organ building and now has four manuals. The acoustics of the church in Luxembourg seem just right for these works.

The morning-coming-up section from Daphnis et Chloé is one of my favorites, and while Idenstam has created a wonderful new version on the organ, I think I still prefer the orchestral original, if for nothing else than the woodwinds sounding like birds waking up, whereas those sounds are not possible on the organ. La Valse works well, although the two-piano version exploits the percussive effects better than the pipe organ. The famous Pavane is quite effective on the organ, and the sensual aspects of the waltz do come across well in the Valses nobles et sentimentales. I think I understand why he didn’t re-arrange the entire piece.

As for the much-transcribed Bolero, this is the full sixteen-minute version, and it makes a most rousing conclusion to these organ transcriptions. I think I still prefer the orchestral original, but this one is quite an interesting variation on that. Not easy to keep up the continual repetition on the pipe organ but Idenstam has found a way. BIS is now using 96K/24-bit PCM original recording, and the improvement is quite audible in all their SACD releases. Any possibility of going to DSD next?

—John Sunier

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