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Second great 5 stars review in Fanfare

April 10, 2024

Colin Clarke

STAIRWAY TO BACH  Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen (org)  OUR RECORDINGS 8.226920 (75:25)
THE DOORS Light My Fire. People Are Strange. THE SAVAGE ROSE The City Awakes. LED ZEPPELIN Stairway to Heaven. PINK FLOYD Shine On You Crazy Diamond. QUEEN Bohemian Rhapsody. PROCOL HARUM Homburg. Repent Walpurgis. A Whiter Shade of Pale (all arr. Mikkelsen). BACH Suite in e, BWV 996: Bourée (arr. Tul/Mikkelsenl). Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D, BWV 1068: Air (arr. Mikkelsen). Fantasia in g, BWV 572 (Pièce d'orgue, excerpt). Prelude and Fugue in g, BWV 535. Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, BWV 645.
In a video available on the video sharing platform YouTube, organist Sven-Ingvart Mikkelsen himself explains the thought behind this album, of his own arrangements early in his life of music from popular genres for the organ, and indeed how in the past, Bach arranged pieces by Vivaldi for the King of Instruments. The subtitle of teh disc is “Rock Classics with a hint of Bach,” although one might reasonably argue this is more than a “hint”. Nevertheless, it is all both incredibly skillful, and always tasteful.
The repertoire focuses on rock and pop from the 1960s and 1970s, specifically “symphonic rock” music with its debt (whether acknowledged or not) to earlier musics, often Bach. Sven-Ingvert’ Mikkelsen’s arrangement of Light My Fire (The Doors) illustrates both the cleverness and the convincing nature of these arrangements. The original song was preceded (in 1967) by a Bach-inspired organ introduction that referenced the third movement of the second Brandenburg Concerto, BWV 1047, and so it is this concerto that Mikkelsen seamlessly interweaves with the popular song. To do so requires, on a technical level, real control of pulse, something fearlessly achieved by Mikkelsen (I say “fearlessly” as some of the riffs are far from easy). This is a seven-minute exploration of one of the most famous popular songs.
The arrival of “real” Bach is heralded by the Fantasia in G, BWV 572 (sometimes called Pièce d'Orgue, as it is in OUR's documentation). Marked “Très vitement,” Mikkelson opts of a speed slower than some, which allows for maximal definition. He plays only the first part, allowing it to then usher in some Danish instrumental rock from 1972 based on that very piece (and including in the original line-up a Hammond organ), The City Awakes (“Byen Vãgner") from The Triumph of Death (“Dødens Triumf") by The Savage Rose. This OUR disc, trust me, is quite the adventure; and yet, it all makes sense. The Savage Rose is here not so savage in organ incarnation, and the alignment with Bach is sure to raise both smile and eyebrow.
Mikkelsen finds a parallel between Stairway to Heaven (Led Zep) and the ”Badinerie” from Bach’s second Orchestral Suite (BWV 1067), and so finds a way to introduce Bach’s lines into his arrangement. The introduction of cover tones above the famous 1970s melody, and the use of diminution in Baroque style is magnificent. Interestingly, Mikkelsen has recorded this piece before, for violin and organ with Jochen Brusch on his album Bach to Rock. Apart from the obvious difference that a violin can be more “vocal” through devices such as portamento, the two performances still emerge as very different beasts. There is a real grandeur to the organ-only arrangement.
The recital includes a small raft of Bach pieces, the first arranged by Jethro Tull, the second an original format Prelude and Fugue in G-Minor. Interestingly, there is a moment in Tull’s own recording of the Bourée from the E-Minor Suite that seems to deliberately underline a link to Stairway to Heaven. The organ used by Mikkelsen, that of Royal Danish Academy of Music and built by Marcussen & Sons in 1946, is clearly one of the finest in the world; the changes in tone available, the cleanliness of sound, its power, all are in evidence here; what is more, Mikkelsen reveals himself as one of the finest of Bach exponents, the G-Minor Fugue unfolding with an awesome inevitability, performed with complete understanding of the contrapuntal processes, and with complete and utter clarity of line. The organ pedals emerge with fine focus.
After that the world goes somewhat strange: it turns out that the opening, decidedly otherworldly harmonies of Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond transfer perfectly to the abilities of an organ to seemingly sustain a chord in perpetuity. Mikkelsen’s achievement is to present the argument so convincingly while giving the impression of making it all up on the spot. It is utterly remarkable; the sense of space in itself seems to invite meditation; plus, there is the most delicious Bach reference. Something similar happens in Bohemian Rhapsody (where the Prelude in E flat-Major, BWV 552, sneaks in). Mikkelsen’s choice of stops is perfect.
Whether or not an organ arrangement can capture the odd nature of the music itself in The Doors’ People Are Strange is the core question here, and Mikkelsen somehow succeeds while adding just a touch of jauntiness via a soupçon of spring to the rhythm.
The follow-up to the more famous A Whiter Shade of Pale, Procol Harum’s Homburg is a ballad that seems to am to match Stairway to Heaven in its elliptical lyrics. It also includes a Hammond organ in the original 1967 release, which helps its case for inclusion here. Furthermore, it also fits perfectly in this Bachian arrangement (which includes a quote from the Largo of Bach’s Keyboard Concerto, BWV 1056). That Hammond organ similarly featured in the original of Procol Harum’s Repent Walpurgis, enabling another fine fit. The title Repent Walpurgis apparently is a melding of two ideas: one band member suggested the piece exuded angst (which led to “repent”); another suggested it reminded them of Walpurgis Nacht. Certainly, there is a measure of Gothic immensity in Mikkelsen’s performance; and how that contrasts with the quotation from the Bach C-Major Prelude from Book One of the WTC. There is real beauty in Mikkelsen’s arrangement, too. This is effectively the climax of the whole album, and it is followed by two shorter pieces, effectively encores: Mikkelsen’s arrangement of the “Air on a G-String," a lovely stroll through Bach’s masterpiece, and finally that Procol Harum piece mentioned earlier, A Whiter Shade of Pale, linking nicely with its own take on the Bach Air.
It takes a real artist to pay homage to rock music in this way, to accord it dignity, and inform it with interest aplenty. Just not making this sound like fairground organ arrangements is an achievement in itself, and Mikelsen far, far transcends that. The booklet is maximally informative and, as a rather nice touch, includes scans of original rock album covers. The recording is demonstration standard. A clear winner. Colin Clarke

five stars: It takes a real artist to pay homage to rock music in this way, to accord it dignity aplenty

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