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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
Six organ sonatas, Op 65 (1845)

Organ Sonata #1 in f [17.24]
Organ Sonata #2 in c [10.56]
Organ Sonata #3 in A [9.47]
Organ Sonata #4 in Bb [13.50]
Organ Sonata #5 in D [9.49]
Organ Sonata #6 in d [16.25]
Reg Elson, Viscount Prestige [electronic digital sampler sequencer] Organ
Recorded at Woodsetts House, November 2002
Notes in English, Deutsch
GUILD GMCD 7249 [72.26]


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Comparison recording: Organ Sonatas, Op. 65 #’s 2, 3 & 6, Peter Hurford, organ Argo 414420-2

This recording of the Mendelssohn Sonatas was made on an electronic organ. The instrument capitalises on many of the enormous improvements which have in recent years been made as a result of the development of computers. Also much acoustical research has been stimulated by unsatisfactory experiences with older, simpler such instruments, such as the once ubiquitous Hammond electric organ. This ‘Viscount’ instrument has a real ‘front end,’ that is real organ keyboard, drawstops, couplers, pedals, etc. These all terminate in electric switches of course, but have been cleverly loaded with weights, springs, and levers so they feel to the experienced player like the real thing.

After many frustrating years of trying to perfect electronic tone generators, electronic musical instruments now virtually all use actual digital recordings of real acoustic instruments to produce the basic sound wave form. One digital recording is made of each note of the scale throughout the range of the instrument; these recordings, stored in the memory of a computer, are then selected and played back in tempo either directly from a keyboard, or by means a computer program. This program can be ‘written’ by a musician playing on a keyboard and may include, besides pitch and timing, such things as how hard the key is pressed down, as well as use of pedals, drawbars, etc. Also, computer acoustical calculations can produce a reverberant environment of astounding realism. This digital stream is then fed directly into the CD mastering lathe without requiring the use of loudspeakers, microphones, or external mixers. The result has naturally been a quantum leap forward in the ‘realism’ of the sound.

Not mentioned in the notes to this release is the universal use of this MIDI (‘Musical Instrument Digital Interface’) computer system which allows the digital recording of every aspect of a musical performance including attack and release, key pressure (‘aftertouch’), key force (‘velocity’). This allows the instrument to reproduce the performance exactly whenever desired with vastly greater realism than was ever possible with the "piano roll" player pianos of 200 years ago. The obvious consequence is that after the recording is made, each of these parameters can be individually edited, and the performance brought to a virtually absolute level of perfection. Since Dr. Elson’s performance is almost absolutely perfect, I suggest he may have made at least some use of MIDI editing capability although he does not say so.

The further consequence of this is that a person such as myself with some musical sense but with virtually zero keyboard skills can produce startlingly brilliant performances of virtuoso keyboard works just by using computer editing. I am very proud of my Liszt Dante Sonata, for instance; also my Shostakovich 24th Prelude & Fugue. This in spite of the fact that I flunked piano in the third year and never could actually play anything beyond the simplest of the Purcell keyboard suites.

I suggest that Dr. Elson has not gone nearly so far as I do. I suspect he actually enjoys playing the works at the keyboard and has enough skill to produce at least a creditable first version and that any use of MIDI editing capability is only to clear up an occasional difficulty here and there. Keyboard artists say in interviews that the ability to correct a wrong note here and there gives them the freedom to play with more emotion and less worry, and that they produce much better performances overall, not merely note perfect ones. If the editing were not available, they would have to play more cautiously, and the many retakes required to achieve note perfect recordings would result in fatigue and a more timid approach, with less taking of risks. In other words Dr. Elson is probably doing nothing more or less than virtually every other recording keyboard artist today is doing.

Does this recording sound "natural?" Well, largely. It sounds like a small church organ in a relatively dead acoustical environment. Dr. Elson may be feeling tracker rods and levers and cogs, but they don’t make any sounds, and in a real organ you can hear them. The "swell shutters" just turn the circuit gain up and down; they don’t make any ‘frump’ sound, however quietly, and they don’t act differentially on the harmonics of the sound the way real swell shutters do.

The playing is almost flawless. These are extremely clear recordings and allow one to hear every detail of the music; tempi and registrations and thoughtfully chosen and the overall effect is very musical, but not very emotional, certainly not exciting. Direct comparison with the Peter Hurford recording — particularly appropriate since Dr. Elson is a friend of Dr. Hurford — reminds us that the real organ can gasp and growl and shriek and makes funny noises now and then whereas the Viscount retains its dignity.

The price mentioned here, £13,000, for an organ that never needs tuning or regulating; never drifts with the weather; is immune to bats, birds, and mice building nests; is immune to the effects of small earthquakes, heavy trucks driving by, and sonic booms; is always ready to play at the turn of a switch; and only uses as much electricity as a small light bulb, will prove irresistible to churches. Expect one to come to a galaxy near you very soon, and expect to see real pipe organs quickly relegated to museums of musical history.

It was actually nearly twenty years ago in Vancouver, Canada, that I saw the future before me. I was in a large German restaurant being entertained by an oompah band. Everybody was in authentic costume and the trumpeters were standing up front blaring away, accompanied by the expected loud bass tuba — but wait a minute, I couldn’t see any tuba! Then I saw a young fellow way in the back playing the tuba part with two fingers on a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser. The sound was perfectly realistic, and I was probably the only one who noticed. Today, probably 75% of all popular and commercial music is synthesized, and you probably haven’t noticed.

Paul Shoemaker



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