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Francis Monkman - 2006 - "J. S. Bach: Novalis Orgel, Schloeben"

(154 min 2CD, Crocodile)


Prolusion. English musician and composer Francis MONKMAN is well known in progressive music circles, but mainly for being a 'Rock' artist: as a member of Curved Air, 801 and Sky, as well as a solo performer. However not many are aware of his passion for Classical music, although it runs all through his life. On his new album, "J. S. Bach: Novalis Orgel, Schloeben", Francis presents the compositions of Johannes Sebastian Bach, whose work marks a climax in the development of organ music. This double CD was entirely recorded in a small church in the village of Schloeben in Germany, all the pieces having been played on the so-called Novalis organ (after Georg Philipp Friedrich von Hardenberg, who took his pen-name from a former family name and is regarded as founder of the German Romantic movement), which was built in 1750 by J. E. Gerhard (who may well have been apprenticed to Trebs, a builder well-known to Bach).

Disc 1 (78 min)


1.   Allein Gott in der Hoeh' sei Ehr' 2:42
2-3. Prelude & Fugue in G-major 10:49
4.   Alle Menschen muessen sterben 3:07
5-6. Prelude & Fugue in C-minor 18:01
7.   Ich ruf' zu dir, Herr Jesus Christ 3:33
8.   Fantasia super Komm heiliger Geist 16:01
9.   Herr Gott, nun schleuss den Himmel auf 3:32
10.  Christus, der uns selig macht 4:30
11.  Toccata & Fugue in D-minor 10:22
12.  Erbarm dich mein, o Herre Gott 5:32


Francis Monkman - church organ

Analysis. How many books written three and more centuries ago are still hugely popular nowadays? Only "Robinson Crusoe" by Daniel Defo, I think (well, maybe, Lope De Vega's "A Dog on the Hay" too). Anyway, whatever one may say, I believe music loses its value less quickly than fiction, while the music of Bach is just immortal, that fact having been proven by Time itself. Most of the works Bach created for organ became the height of organ music, standing out for their pithiness, emotional saturation and dramatic range, as well as the grandeur of their sound and the relative liberty, as well as astonishing originality and diversity of their forms. Francis Monkman's renderings are distinguished not so much by a novel approach to the interpretation of the works as by his quite uncommon executive aesthetic, whose essence lies in his special attitude towards the old organs (and those of Thuringia in particular), compared to their more recent models. It is no secret that in the XIX and XX Centuries, many viewed an organ performing art more as an object of their intellectual ambitions than, say, historically-adjusted researches. The expression of personal ideas seemed to be more significant then, while the instrument itself was just a kind of transmission medium. As a basis for his aesthetics, Francis assumes instrumentalism in its pure form - in order that the instrument 'speak for itself' with all its possible resources, pedals included. The Novalis organ, although small, is rich in tonal resources, and a performer's task lies in eliciting these in a way to compel them to play in favor of the music as such. Francis masterfully rises to this task, with a deep internal concentration, delivering a rich poly-timbre sound. Besides, he just astonishes me with his ability to observe nuances, and not even the shadow of a bizarre motley or eccentricity: Francis's interpretations exclude any extreme solutions - regarding tempo, phrasing, etc. No, in fact I wanted to say Francis's 'executive will' reveals itself (in polyphony, structure, and phrasing too), but on a more subtle level - within the material. It's truly delicate work, as a result of which the source material sounds very organic. Given such an approach, Bach's music appears to be highly saturated and as if lightened from the inside. It even seems to be somewhat angular at times, which just gives you occasion to remember that most of the toccatas relate to Bach's early experiments, brightly reflecting the spirit of 'baroque thinking', which is full of fantasticality and strangeness. In a way, Francis's playing is equal to a skilled jeweler's work while polishing a magnificent diamond. The main charm of his performance lies exactly in the fact that he advances the listener to the authentic essence of this music, without foisting his own tastes on him or her. In my view, such an executive aesthetic when a performer himself has succeeded in standing in the background is of a high artistic value. Francis's new effort is just such a case, and it's hard to overestimate it.

Disc 2 (76 min)


1.  Praeludium (Prelude in Eb) 10:14
2.  Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit 3:33
3.  Christe Aller Welt Trost 5:59
4.  Kyrie Gott heiliger Geist 8:36
5.  Diess sind die heil'gen zehn Gebot' 7:47
6.  " " " fuguetta, manualiter 2:17
7.  Vater Unser in Himmelreich 10:22
8.  " " " manualiter 1:59
9.  Jesus Christus, unser Heiland 4:11
10. Fuga a 5 (Fugue in Eb) 11:50
11. O Mensch, bewein' Dein 6:18
12. Prelude 1 (WTC) 2:21

Analysis. As Beethoven said, "It would've been better if he were called not Bach (Bach is "brook" in German), but Sea". The work of Bach resembles a sea indeed, being both immense and majestic. Just like a sea, it's both mighty and deep, now heavy - now quiet, now austere - now gentle, a cold reason harmonically coexisting with a fervent emotionality, a wise logic adjoining a brave fantasy. This music seems to include everything most important with which God imbues our souls. It's a sermon and a prayer, a confession and a precept, a spiritual power and a living energy, an infinite grandeur and a moving trustfulness all simultaneously. The gamut of feelings is incredibly wide: the wave of emotions (Toccata & Fugue in D-minor) replaces a silent talk shining with upper wisdom and, at the same time, higher simplicity (Alle Menschen muessen sterben); the chapters filled with drama (Prelude & Fugue in C-minor) give place to those full of an unfeigned merriment (Prelude & Fugue in G-major), and so on. However none of the compositions is emotionally monochromatic throughout, and most of those referring to God or Christ in their titles are especially obvious in this respect, one of such being a piece that had sparked my personal interest in the music of Bach. This is Ich ruf' zu Dir, Herr Jesus Christ, also known as Choral Prelude in F-minor, used as a central musical storyline in the "Solaris" movie by Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. I was just 9 when I've heard it for the first time, and I have instantly fallen in love with it - once and forever. This is a truly divine composition in my understanding: an atmosphere of sorrow is penetrated with a gleam of hope, which as if suggests that our earthly life isn't the last point of our being. The canvases combining a grief and hope are typical of most of the works dedicated to the Son of God, all also being notable for a soft (both gentle and mooted) sound, unlike affirmative pieces. At times Bach united two structurally polar things into two-part cycles, such as a semi-improvisational toccata or prelude and a strict fugue. Toccata & Fugue in D-minor is one of the most shining examples of such an approach. Standing on the same level with the composer's large-scale polymorphous constructions, this work is built on a contrast, is notable for its great range and features a grandiose culmination in the finale. This is one of the best and, at the same time, best-known creations of Bach, whose first part is familiar to plenty of earthly people (those strangers to music included), although its title as such reveals little if anything. The Fugue is an apogee of polyphony and harmony. Bach's music plunges the listener deeply into his inner space, which is the same reason that we love the best in Progressive Rock. The sound of the Novalis organ is warm, rich and is abundant in overtones and reverberations. In total, this album is a very picturesque virtual journey allowing the listener to take a mental look into the world of Baroque Europe and beyond, depending on his/her imagination.

Conclusion. As a work of art, this double CD set is a collection of unfading masterworks of different polyphonic styles and forms and, simultaneously, a splendid pattern of a high-skilled executive mastery in the traditions of classicism. This is a program that has given Francis Monkman the opportunity to show the entire palette of his really huge potentials as a classical musician (too). His new release is an important contribution to the existence of Bach's masterpieces.

VM: July 5 & 6, 2006

Related Links:

Francis Monkman
Crocodile Music


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