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Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Fantasie in F minor KV 608 [10'12]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Prelude and Fugue in G minor [6'20]
Fugue in A flat minor [7'28]
Chorale Prelude and Fugue on O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid [7'18]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Prelude and Fugue in E minor [13'48]
Max REGER (1873-1916)

Variations and Fugue on an original theme in F sharp minor op 73 [34'07]
Robert Houssart, organ
Rec: Gloucester Cathedral, 23-25 February 2005 DDD
REGENT REGCD221 [79'14]
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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 performance.

Houssart's playing 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 and impressive.

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.

Chris Bragg

Gijs Boelen on Regerís 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.

Reger's masterpiece 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.

Gijs Boelen


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