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Felix MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847)
Six Organ Sonatas (1844-45): No.1 in F minor; No.2 in C minor/major; No.3 in A major; No.4 in Bb Major; No.5 in D major; No.6 in D minor.
Reg Elson plays the Viscount Prestige organ at Woodsetts, Woodsetts
Rec. November 2002
GUILD GMCD 7249 [78.33]


The first question is what exactly is a Viscount Prestige organ? You might be forgiven if at first you thought it some kind of kitchen utensil or domestic appliance, but it is in fact an electronic organ which sits in the private dwelling of the performer Reg Elson.

You may well ask how it is that Mendelssohn’s great, indeed sometimes massive organ sonatas find themselves on this instrument and what it is like.

Guild have, as ever, helped us by providing an essay written about the instrument by Reg Elson with a useful résumé of each movement of each sonata and even more usefully a complete organ specification. Impressive it is too. The recording location is the clue, Woodsetts House, not a church.

The organ is a 3-manual instrument with a simulated tracker action and drawstops! Reg goes on to tell us that "the Viscount has been sitting happily in my home for the last twelve months and is voiced using various samples from North German organs". Perhaps it was for this reason that he chose Mendelssohn’s sonatas to record when possibly baroque or earlier music might have been more suitable. The advantage Reg tells us is that organ music can often be spoiled by the acoustic, meaning that some musical detail can be lost. I know this for myself when my own Organ Sonata was performed brilliantly at York Minster without the audience ‘hearing’ more than 50% of the piece.

With the Viscount "the pipework, the building and every rank recorded is stored in digital form which retains the natural qualities of the pipe organ and its environment". To see the picture on the back of the booklet you would think that Reg Elson is sitting at any organ in a large church.

So what does it sound like and is it effective in this repertoire?

If Mendelssohn was not now known as a great composer he would still have been remembered for his rediscovery, of J.S. Bach. Mendelssohn’s fascination and interest manifested itself in various areas. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between Mendelssohn’s and J.S.’s Motets, large-scale choral works and fugues. The first sonata opens with a fugue as does the third; the sixth culminates in one. What is interesting is that the fugal subjects and counter subjects are always clear with this organ and the counterpoint never stodgy or indistinct. Whilst the bass weight does not seem to be lost, the upper registers on the ‘Great’ are not so impressive and they fail, to my ear, to penetrate with requisite power. I must add however that contrary to many, I would not view these sonatas as unduly heavy or weighty. None is particularly long. Number six is just over sixteen minutes. Many movements, for example the third movement of the fourth sonata, are nothing more or less than a song without words accompanied by a gentle rolling pianistic figure. This organ helps to bring out almost a chamber quality in this music where it is most appropriate.

The use of chorales is another significant stylistic feature although sometimes, as in the finale of the Sixth Sonata they end up being quite romantic; very much in the language so influential and so beloved of hundreds of Victorian church musicians.

The louder music is impressive; the lyrical music delightful. The chorale-like homophonic movements like the second (and last) of the Second Sonata make the organ (and I’m sorry if I upset anyone), sound as if it stuck up the corner of the local crematorium. It is a sound I find almost ’naff’.

Written in a very short period, these sonatas are not great Mendelssohn but there are some very attractive ideas and they are a real pleasure to play. My favourite is the brief three-movement fifth. The best is probably the sixth which happens to be the longest. Reg Elson plays them with care, love and seems to me to judge the tempi ideally with excellent choice of stops and colour.

If you don’t mind the organ and if the music sounds interesting to you then you will enjoy these performances.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Paul Shoemaker

 



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