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The Organ Sonatas op. 65 (1844-5)
Sonata No. 1 in f [15'40]
Sonata No. 2 in c [10'17]
Sonata No. 3 in A [9'01]
Sonata No. 4 in B flat [13'44]
Sonata No. 5 in D [8'39]
Sonata No. 6 in d [14'19]
Kay Johannsen, organ
Rec: St Adalbero, Wurzburg 28-30 May 2001 DDD
CARUS 83.167 [72'29]

The Mendelssohn sonatas are established 'standard repertoire' items for most organists. Commissioned in London as 'Voluntaries' and then published simultaneously in four different countries, they are notable for their lack of consistent form, ranging from two to four movements, and eight to fifteen minutes in length. These are perhaps pieces which have lent themselves more to transformation by each international school of playing in the late 19th and 20th centuries than any other romantic organ music. In Britain one is still used to hearing this music with swell-boxes, Celestes, perhaps even an occasional tuba ..... This music forms, however an interesting cross-roads between the new 19th century thinking about the instrument, and 18th century traditions of composing; Mendelssohn was of course the greatest of Bach pioneers. Organists have only recently come to terms with the fact that these pieces are probably written for a rather classical instrument, and other aspects such as execution of the so-called 'accent slur', (reflecting after all 18th century beat hierarchy), as opposed to the longer line, ('Lied Ohne Worte..........') remain issues of contention.

This is a very well judged and well executed recording of the Mendelssohn Sonatas. It faithfully reflects the registrational ideas of the composer in his brief preface to the works, and also his tempo markings, so precise, and crucial for the correct 'colour' of each movement. Johanssen is a multi-prize winning former student in Freiburg and Boston. Some minor things puzzled me, why for example does he take a new tempo with the entry of the chorale in the first movement of the first sonata?

Most problematic of all however is his choice of organ, which is unimaginative to say the least. Built by Rensch in 1995, it is yet another Central European eclectic mish-mash organ, which the Frenchy reeds in the box, the Acuta and Krummhorn in the Positive, the big chorus in the Hauptwerk, the sequencer, the ultra-stable wind ... etc. It is not a bad example, with more 8 foundation stops than most of these organs possess and housed in a warm acoustic. But for a Mendelssohn sonata cycle in this age of wall-to-wall organ recordings, its choice is in my opinion unforgivable. Germany and indeed the Netherlands, (think of Utrecht, Deventer, Farmsum, the Ronde Lutherse Kerk in Amsterdam to name but four) have so many, so much more beautiful instruments from the time of Mendelssohn which could have made this a 'must-have' recording instead of just a recommendable one. I will shortly review a complete Brahms organ-works cycle on these pages where superb organ choice makes precisely this difference.

Despite this serious flaw, this remains worth having.

Chris Bragg

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