The second volume of Jennifer Bate’s Mendelssohn
survey is dominated by the Second and Sixth Organ Sonatas.
Together these take up nearly half of the seventy minutes
the disc contains; but artistically they stand heard and
shoulders above the other, miniature, items gathered in
It is when confronting a project such as
this that one realises the nature of the creative life of
a prolific composer. Mendelssohn was undoubtedly that, though
of course we only know him for a fragment of his output.
The pair of sonatas that open the programme are masterly
works, and the Sonata No. 6 is particularly individual and
striking. Recorded in the ample acoustic of St John’s Upper
Norwood, the varied tones and shadings come across particularly
well, so too the dynamic range. The first movement is an
impressive chorale and four variations, as fine a movement
for the instrument as Mendelssohn composed. The approach,
with its obvious homage to Bach and the German tradition,
was clearly one that suited Mendelssohn well, and Jennifer
Bate sensitively brings its myriad possibilities to the
listener’s attention, with beautifully articulated phrasing
and crystal-clear control of textures.
This imaginative opening movement is followed
by two fugal movements, each identified by relatively slow
tempi; but the last of the variations is an Allegro molto,
so overall the sonata has plenty of variety.
The Sonata No. 2 is hardly less fine. It
is often more massive in tone, such as in its introductory
section before the main material is released. Then the second
half of the piece shows abundant vitality, in which Jennifer
Bate clearly revels. Here again the Somm engineers achieve
miracles clarity, though using a different organ on this
occasion: The Temple Church in Fleet Street.
The remainder of the programme is made of
a succession of short pieces, some of them from unfinished
projects. One of these is more fragmentary than the others:
the Chorale in D minor with Variation, probably composed
in the summer of 1840 but left aside when other priorities
took over. Jennifer Bate has provided her own completion,
and even the ear attuned to Mendelssohn’s style in this
repertoire would be challenged to detect another hand at
Mendelssohn’s love of Bach underpins much
of his organ music, of course, and it is interesting therefore
to hear an early Fugue, written in 1820 when the composer
was just eleven years old. It is no masterpiece but it is
technically assured. Much the same can be said of the remaining
items on the programme, which all date from the mid-1840s.
It is sometimes suggested that Mendelssohn’s genius was
on the wane by then, but the creation of the Violin Concerto
and the oratorio Elijah provide strong contradiction to
These collected organ works are interesting
rather than inspired, in the sense that the two sonatas
are inspired. But a complete survey such as this does Mendelssohn
honour and he is a great composer, and it is always worth
exploring the achievements of great composers.