Christopher Bowers-Broadbent organ
Recorded October 1990, Grossmünster, Zürich
Engineer: Peter Laenger
Produced by Manfred Eicher
I am a rider without mount, an ocean without waves, a horizon without dawn, nailed to myself, nailed to an absence in time which, after me, becomes the time of absence.
–Edmond Jabés, The Book of Questions
Avid Arvo Pärt listeners will be more than familiar with the profound talents of Christopher Bowers-Broadbent. The English organist has long held contemporary music in high regard, and has enriched the liturgical landscape with numerous commissions as well as his own compositions. With such a wealth of music available at the tips of his fingers (and toes), Bowers-Broadbent was faced with a daunting task: namely, crafting a personal take on music’s creative intimacy through one of its most leviathan instruments. The end result is, in his own words, a “performance about time and space.” As such, the reach, not the fleeting emotional effect, of his selections becomes paramount. Rather than lay out a program of short, varied pieces, he has turned inward, finding in the works of only three composers enough to describe a universe of ideas.
He first unveils the night sky with a quartet of pieces by Arvo Pärt. Trivium (1988) is like a constellation burning silently for our scrutiny. What remains flat on the stargazer’s map becomes three-dimensional in Bowers-Broadbent’s care. As with Pärt’s other tintinnabular quests, Trivium is both explorer and the landscape being explored. Its powerful middle section connotes a triune infrastructure, embodying the balance of divine order in every disturbance. The steady pulse of Mein Weg hat Gipfel und Wellentäler (1989) breathes with earthly lungs, even as it cradles a heart that can only be seen with a telescope. Its path stays true to the peaks and valleys of its title, taken from a poem by Edmond Jabés (Pärt would later rescore this piece in a version for strings and percussion that can be found on the ECM recording In Principio). Annum per annum (1980) is structured like a mass and brings that same sort of complementary vision to its stark dynamic contrasts. Pari Intervallo, composed in 1981, layers intonations in the higher register over a slow chromatic sway of transfiguration.
We are slowly brought back into our bodies with two of three voluntaries composed by Peter Maxwell Davies in 1976. These arrangements of sixteenth-century Scottish hymns seem to unpack, in a brief span of time, the mystery of faith. With enigmatic precision, Psalm 124 (after David Peebles) traces the contours of God’s raging waters with a touch of resignation, glorying in the safety of grace and retribution, while O God Abufe (after John Fethy) expresses even more succinctly the awe of a prayerful mind.
By the time we arrive at the final two pieces, each a spectacular arrangement of music by Philip Glass, we are well primed for the metamorphoses implied therein. Satyagraha renders the finale of Act III from the selfsame opera into a whirling dervish of stratospheric proportions. One can almost feel the air coursing through the organ’s pipes with every recapitulation. Dance IV, on the other hand, is a more extroverted piece that populates its periphery with movement and attractive forces. It ecstatically forms the center of the album’s galactic structure, drawing in countless voices until it reaches critical mass.
Bowers-Broadbent has the uncanny ability to take music that is seemingly histrionic and forge from it a host of instinctual meanings. From the wafting strains of Pärt’s sublime prostrations to the enlivening regularity of Glass’s exuberant leaps, we are treated at every moment to an august evocation of music for its own sake. All too often, it seems, organ recitals fall under our radar. Albums like this become the radar, and we the blips upon its screen: transient yet unmistakably there.