Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who lived most of his life in Leipzig, was largely self-taught. As well as being a virtuoso pianist he was a skilled performer on several orchestral instruments and, although he came to the organ relatively late in his career, he soon became one of its most noted exponents and exploited its expressive possibilities with immense thoroughness. In addition to the present Improvisation: ‘Nearer my God to Thee’
he also wrote a Canzona on the same theme for choir, solo voices, flute and orchestra. Where Bonnet, the Frenchman, used an English tune, the German Karg-Elert turned to the American hymnodist Lowell Mason for his inspiration. His presentation is also perhaps more cinematic, dealing with events in a much more graphic way. After a fairly straightforward presentation of the tune, the harmony becomes increasingly chromatic as we stray further and further from the home key. A quiet close in F major brings temporary respite before the final build-up to disaster. Proceeding in waves the music gathers speed and becomes increasingly dissonant and desperate. Dramatic pauses, rushing scales and crashing dissonances herald the catastrophe. Karg-Elert briefly quotes the chorale ‘Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ (‘From deep distress I cry to you’) before a final, majestically defiant statement of Mason’s tune. Christopher Herrick then plays the shorter, less purple, version of the coda, in which the music moves serenely towards the stars.
from notes by Stephen Westrop © 1997