This is the impressive
debut recording of Gloucester Cathedral's
assistant organist, Robert Houssart.
I have to claim a particular interest
in his playing, as his education and
mine form an interesting mirror. A year
older than myself, Houssart was born
in Haarlem. Exceptionally for a young
Dutch organist, he chose to study in
England, where he was first organ scholar
at St. John's Cambridge, and later at
Westminster Cathedral. I took the slightly
more common path in the other direction,
completing my under-graduate study in
the UK, and my Masters' study in Amsterdam.
Houssart's decision though has hardly
harmed his career. As well as his current
prestigious posting, he is a former
prize-winner at St Albans (improvisation)
and at the RCO Performer of the Year
competition in 2002.
Here he presents a
programme of Germanic music culminating
in Reger's vast and unfathomable Variations
and Fugue in an Original Theme. So outside
my field of expertise (and listening
pleasure) is Reger's gargantuan creation,
that I have asked my colleague Gijs
Boelen, (another young Haarlemse organist)
to write something about Houssart's
is characterised by a phenomenal virtuosity,
which in the Reger seems to serve him
well. Elsewhere I miss, for my taste,
a little space and elegance in these
otherwise so imposing performances.
The opening of the Mozart is so strong,
and taut, yet seems slightly yet down
by the over-frantic conclusion. Likewise
the Brahms Prelude in g, is taken at
breakneck speed; yes, it is marked Allegro
di molto, but Houssart's tempo is impossible
on a non-electric action organ. It is
worth remembering that these pieces
come from Brahms's early years, (unlike
the chorale preludes), and were written
for organs far more classically oriented
than those being built in Germany at
the time of his death. Nowhere in his
organ music does Brahms indicate a crescendo
or diminuendo requiring a swell box.
The atmosphere of the dour A flat fugue,
written as a birthday present to Robert
Schumann is well captured. If you would
like an unmissable alternative Brahms
recommendation, check out Francois Menissier's
recording of the complete organ works
on Hortus -HORTUS 031-[review],
for a hypnotic combination of player,
music, and instrument.
The Gloucester organ
isn't really right for the Bach, and
Houssart's performance is rather superficial,
with added registration and manual changes
in the fugue.
In the Reger Houssart
seems to be in his element, and his
use of the organ and the space is dramatic
Despite my personal
feelings about some of the playing,
this remains a remarkable debut CD.
The playing is undeniably of an extremely
high quality, and the Gloucester organ
remains as colourful as ever.
Gijs Boelen on Reger’s
Variations and Fugue on an original
theme in F sharp minor op 73 [34'07]
Robert Houssart's performance
of Reger's monumental 'Variations and
Fugue on an Original Theme is problematic
from a number of viewpoints. I find
that the performance in general is too
fast, too light and too superficial.
As a result the work loses a lot of
its emotional worth.
has a heavy and melancholic character;
as a result of Houssart's quick tempi
the music lacks impact. As an additional
consequence, the rich variety of harmonic
colour is often inaudible. One of Reger's
biggest influences was the operas of
Richard Wagner, and I find it useful
when playing Reger's music to imagine
the vibrato of a Wagnerian singer, especially
in longer note values.
An additional problem
is the Gloucester organ, which I find
not well suited to Reger's music. The
cutting neo-baroque mixtures often obscure
detail in the quicker passages. A broader,
more foundation-oriented sound allows
the music to sound far more convincing.
Slower, soft passages are, on the other
hand, beautifully registered, and in
general better played.
It must be said that
Houssart has an incredible technique.
The tempi which Reger, in all likelihood,
envisaged for the Variations render
the work extremely difficult for the
player, but Houssart's tempi push the
boundaries of what should be possible
to the scarcely believable. Unfortunately
fundamental things suffer, such as his
touch; his legato, so essential in this
music, sometimes lets him down.