Nowowiejski, Organ Concertos,
Whatever the differences are between a concerto for solo organ and symphonies for solo organ, they are too subtle for me to discern. I’m not sure if Felix Nowowiejski, the Cracowian composers (1877-1946) knew (or cared), either. Jerzy Erdman, editor of the Nowowiejski organ works, plausibly suggests that after writing nine organ symphonies and dedicating the last to Beethoven, he didn’t want to exceed the symphonic magic number “9” and continued writing solo organ ‘concertos’ instead. David Denton, who has written about the symphonies, the composer, and the Sauer organ of the Bremen cathedral at length in Fanfare Magazine (22:1) calls him “the Chopin of the organ”.
Nowowiejski was a student of Bruch and Dvořák, but you’d not be able to tell from the two concertos included on this MDG disc. The liner notes—by the performing organist Rudolf Innig, are a pleasure to read and well translated into English—point out: “The musical language of the concertos [from the 30s and 40s] is different from the earlier symphonies; the music sometimes goes to the limits of tonality, harmonic tensions frequently remain unresolved and many movements end on a dissonant or bitonal note.” Nowowiejski’s concertos have a similar effect on my ears as Reger’s organ music, with a dash of Petr Eben: intrigued lack of comprehension as I listen to music that seems conventional but doesn’t ring the expected bells. ‘Conventional’ in this case being a clumsy description by which I mean to convey that the aural anticipation differs to, say Messiaen’s organ works. With Messiaen you know that the listening experience is going to be a different… color, not structure. Here we have essentially conservative musical roots prodded into ambiguous tonal territory for a reason I can’t aurally discern.
It’s difficult to write about music when hampered by ignorance—but the fact that I get into it at all suggests that the performances of the concertos, in MDG’s resplendent sound, are first class. And in any case there are the six shorter, didactic pieces on this disc, which are easier to embrace: the calm repose of the chorale-based “Preludium sur un theme Kyrie de la Messe XI” op.9/3 or the festive, occasionally clumsy “Marche festive” op.8/3 are early Nowowiejski—and now his teachers show a bit more… we are in territory much more reminiscent of Rheinberger. What we are not in, however, is the colorful world of French romantic organ music that inspired Nowowiejski to his organ symphonies in the first place. I might have be intrigued enough to want to look into his organ symphonies now (also on MDG with Innig) at this point, but Haig Mardirosian’s reviews of Nowowiejski organ works for Fanfare Magazein (22:3, 24:2) more dowse than fuel the timid enthusiasm David Denton was able to work up. My reluctant conclusion is: less “Chopin of the organ” and more “everything I dislike about Widor”.