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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Choralvorspiel und Fuge uber 'O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid' [8'16]
Praludium und Fuge in a moll [5'50]
Fuge in as-moll [7'41]
Praludium und Fuge in g-moll [7'24]
Elf Choralvorspiele [32'57]
François Menissier, organ,
Rec. Sint Maartenskerk, Zaltbommel, (The Netherlands) and St Maria, Schramberg, (Germany), 20th August 2000 and 24-25th September 2003. DDD

Brahms' organ music is a tough nut to crack. One could never describe it as optimistic, despite the early flair of the Preludes and Fugues. The op. 122 Chorale Preludes are the composer's last work, and the first organ works he had written in some 39 years. Fortunately, in this release from Hortus, this music has found an interpreter of rare insight, and two organs perfectly suited to the task.

François Menissier is a former student of Bernard Lagace and Louis Thiry among others. He is organist of the Andreas Silbermann organ in St Thomas in Strasbourg, and of the 1732 Lefèbvre organ in the Rouen Hospital Chapel as well as organ teacher at the Rouen Conservatory. His playing is characterised by a deep feeling for the rhetoric of Brahms' music. He is in touch with the melancholy of much of the op. 122 cycle. He has a rather classical approach to Brahms' time signatures in the preludes, and their tempo implications. His sensitivity can be heard especially in O Traurigkeit; such a plaintive beginning to the disc. This is profoundly conveyed, as is the early vigour of the Preludes and Fugues. But the key to his genius is in his choice of instruments. I would never have thought of the Zaltbommel instrument as the organ for the early works of Brahms but it works perfectly. The organ was built in 1786 by the Rotterdam builder Wollferts, and later modified by Heijneman and Naber, and finally gloriously restored by Blank in 1986. It is housed in an imposing red, west end case in a church with a handsome acoustic of some six seconds and features beautifully smooth fonds, marvellously expressive flutes, weirdly composed mixtures, - the organ was of course primarily designed to lead congregational song - and somewhat agricultural reeds. The latter are at least partially the thumbprint I suspect of Naber; there are Naber pipes in all bar two of the reed stops, and in general his reeds tend toward roughness. The organ is famously impractical - mostly because of those weird mixtures - for playing organ literature, and the current organist, Reitze Smits, has become famed in the Netherlands for his transcriptions of piano and orchestral music, some of which he has recorded there. Hearing him live performing in Zaltbommel is one of the most unforgettable organ concert experiences imaginable in the Netherlands.

The second organ, on which Menissier performs the Chorale Preludes, is a Walcker instrument of 1844. More dark-hued than the Zaltbommel, its variety of 8' colour suits Brahms' late music fantastically well.

The booklet contains an excellent essay by Vincent Genvrin about Brahms' relationship with the organ, and a note from Menissier on his choice of organs. And at last Hortus provide us with specifications and photos of the instruments, and even the registrations.

This recording of the complete Brahms organ works is a model of its kind and is unlikely to be superseded any time soon. Make sure you add it to your collection.

Chris Bragg

The Hortus Catalogue

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