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Jeremy Filsell has form as a virtuoso pianist, organist and arranger – his stunning CD of Cochereau transcriptions at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral is well remembered, and his earlier recordings include a volume of piano music by Rachmaninoff. Inspired by a long-standing passion for the Symphonic Dances, Filsell has built a programme driven by the ‘heady and compelling mix’ which is Rachmaninoff’s ‘sheer grandeur of line, contrapuntal beauty and callisthenic understanding of keyboard textures. The 88-rank Dobson organ of the Kimmel Center, Philadelphia proves an ideal canvas on which to paint his orchestral pictures – this is a big-boned instrument, its divisions clearly separated, spacially; choruses, mixtures and solo stops speak with exemplary clarity and power at every dynamic level. After an explosive outing for the reeds in the opening Étude-Tableau, the organ’s stop-list receives a thorough going-over in the Variations on a theme of Corelli – variations being ideal repertoire-fodder for the organ, Filsell has performed a service by delivering a score which organists should fall on as if it were a ‘native’ piece, taking care not to underestimate the virtuoso demands of the keyboard writing. No less challenging is the exuberant Fugue of 1891, dating from Rachmaninoff’s student days, and bringing together flavours of Schumann and Vierne in scintillating combination. But, rightly, the pinnacle of the CD is the three-movement Symphonic Dances. admitting that even the ‘king of instruments’ might struggle with the myriad orchestral textures of the original, Filsell opts not to risk ‘line, momentum and symphonic sweep’ by attempting a slavish transcription of every tone-colour; instead, his approach is to ‘re-realise’ the music by imagining the colours Rachmaninoff might have heard in his head if writing for the organ. On this instrument, the outcome is an overwhelming success: only in the central lento assai section of the third movement does the organ fail to quite capture Rachmaninoff’s seemingly endless river of melody; but overall this is a small price to pay for the incidental thrills attached to welcoming another great orchestral work to the organ repertoire – not least in the epic grandeur and impossibly flighty counter-melodies of the waltz-tempo second movement; and in that same third movement when Filsell, noting the incursion of the triangle into the orchestration, unleashes the louder of the organ’s two Bell Star stops, to powerful dramatic effect as the piece gathers momentum towards its whirlwind climax. In his devotion to Rachmaninoff, Filsell, in this outstanding recording, places on display an intoxicating combination of colouristic imagination, virtuoso technique and brilliant musicianship – I am sure the composer would greet Filsell’s Symphonic Dances with the same ‘hallelujah’ he appended to the completed score.

GRAEME KAY Read the full review on Agora Classica

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