Kay Johannsen’s Quirky But Fabulous Music

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SUNRISE / JOHANNSEN: Fiery Dance. Encore I. Encore II. Encore III. The Great Wall. Vorspiel aus der Orgeloper, “Nachtbus.” Song of Hope. Sunrise. Pièce pour flûte et orgue.* Improvisation über B-A-C-H. Concerto for Organ, Strings & Percussion+ / Kay Johannson, org; *Julie Stewart, fl; +Stiftsphilharmonie Stuttgart; +Mikhail Gerts, cond. / Carus 83.485

It’s not usual nowadays that we encounter a composer whose principal instrument is the organ. Oh yes, there are many works written for the organ, but normally by non-organists. Kay Johannsen, on the other hand, is organist at the Stiftskirche Stuttgart, and he is also a composer with a great ear for musical color as well as a modernist bent. The very first piece, for instance, Fiery Dance, is a transmutation of de Falla’s famed Ritual Fire Dance, only shifted to 3/4 time, using modern modulations and increasing in both tempo and volume from start to finish. It’s as good an introduction as any of the wonderfully creative musical mind he possesses.

But if you think that’s wild, wait ‘til you hear Encore I, which almost sounds like circus music on acid. The tune is upbeat and largely tonal, but not straightforward by any means. As the liner notes say, it is “characterized on the one hand by arpeggios in both hands over a continuous pedal line, and on the other hand by a solo voice which is accompanied with percussive rhythms in the left hand and pedal.” Equally strange is Encore II, which has a sort of Eastern-fantasia quality about it. It is centered around D minor but uses whole tones and broken chords. Encore III almost sounds like an old French pop tune of the 1960s (think of those Claude Bolling film scores), except that the harmony keeps on moving and shifting chromatically.

The Great Wall, a more serious piece, was of course inspired by a concert tour in China. But it is really only more serious in terms of its greater length (almost eight minutes) and complexity. The music still veers towards tonality, and Johanssen composes real tunes as his themes, which he develops in an interesting manner. Once again there is an Asian tinge to the score, more creative use of chromatics, as well as an organ “thunderstorm” in the middle. A bolero-type rhythm is set up, against which Johanssen plays yet another variant on the original tune. It ends in a blaze of glory.

The Vorspiel aus der Orgeloper, “Nachtbus” is the prelude to an 80-minute opera that Johansson wrote in 2010 for two singers, flute, percussion and organ. The music here is much more harmonically dense and also more “serious” (if I may use that term) in tone, being quite dense in structure. For this recording, Johanssen left out the percussion accompaniment.

The Song of Hope is a strange mixture of popular song, classical fantasia and a bit of ominous harmony. It sounds like something the Phantom of the Opera might play for himself in a cheerful mood. Eventually a syncopated figure shows up and dominates the proceedings. The notes suggest that this evokes a saxophone soloists with a jazz band, but rhythmically speaking Johansson is not quite Fats Waller; he doesn’t really play the jazz rhythms crisply enough. (But then again, neither does any other pipe organist I know of.)

Sunrise, dating from 2016, started out its life as an improvisation and it sounds it. The music is ruminative yet exploratory, quiet yet with a feeling of disquiet. Close seconds in the harmony continually pop into the picture, disturbing the otherwise placid surface of the music. The notes indicate that despite the title, Sunrise is not intended to be program music or to specifically suggest the rising of the sun. Slowly but surely, the music becomes more and more complex, with Johannsen adding layers to it so that it almost sounds as if two organists are playing in tandem. The music’s complexity continues to grow as it crescendos to a full forte, then ever more complex as contrary eighth-note figures play against one another.

The Piece for Flute and Organ marks a complete change of pace for Johannsen. Here, the music is light, lyrical, and transparent, reminiscent of some of the best French music from the early 20th century. Debussy, Saint-Saëns or Koechlin would have been proud to claim it, as it moves along slowly but beautifully through a number of dissolves into quietude. On the other hand, the Improvisation over B-A-C-H is just that, an improvised piece using the basic notes of B, A, C and B-flat (called H in German) to create a fascinating piece with real development and evolution. At around the 2:40 mark, the music moves into an almost Spanish tango rhythm, then slows down while the organist simulates bells and then evolves into yet another rhythmic pace as the theme morphs and changes. Eventually it becomes a swirling mélange of notes, leading to its conclusion.

The CD ends with the Concerto for Organ, Strings and Percussion (2014), a work that harks back to the neo-classical style of the 1920s but not quite in the Stravinsky vein. Once again Johannsen flirts with Spanish rhythm, uses chromatic shifts to great effect, and shows a proclivity for using the orchestra almost as if it were a three-manual organ. The second movement begins with a lovely, lyrical violin solo, which eventually blends into the soft organ tone as Johannsen plays an alternative theme, much more complex and involved. The development section, however, belongs mostly to the orchestra with occasional organ interludes. The third movement, a sort of odd-sounding Schero, has an irregular 1, 2, 1-2 1-2 kind of pulse with quite a bit of syncopation. The notes indicate that all movements of this concerto are based on the same motivic material, but that the composer did not intend for listeners to be aware of this at first hearing. Eventually, the Scherzo moves almost imperceptibly into the last movement, which is quite lively and, again, almost Spanish-sounding. One of the things I like most about Johannsen’s music is that it is playful, in the sense that he plays with the music in his mind and somehow comes out with results that sound spontaneous even when through-composed.

This is a wonderful CD, but do yourself a favor and also check out his organ opera Nachtbus on YouTube, available in three sections beginning here.

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

Follow me on Twitter! @Artmusiclounge

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