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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasia and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, S.259 (1850) [30:24]
Julius REUBKE (1834-1858)
Sonata on the 94th Psalm [26:37]
Robert Costin (organ)*
rec. April 2007, Wellington Town Hall auditorium, Wellington, New Zealand. DDD
Experience Classicsonline

Virtuoso English organist Robert Costin presents two great mid-19th German classics from Liszt and Reubke on the magnificent romantic symphonic organ of Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand. In the notes Costin describes the instrument as, “…a very fine, and extremely rare example of an English symphonic style organ”.

The organ of Wellington Town Hall was built in 1906 at a cost of £5000 by the eminent firm Norman and Beard Ltd. of London and Norwich. It was almost de rigueur in the late 1800s and early 1900s in many countries for a prestigious public building to have a substantial organ constructed. Norman and Beard benefited from this fervour for organs and were the builders of the organs at Norwich Cathedral (1899), Cheltenham College (1905), Winchester College Chapel (1908), Emmanuel College Chapel, Cambridge (1909), Usher Hall, Edinburgh (1914) and also the organ of Johannesburg Town Hall in South African.

In June 1901 the foundation stone of the Town Hall at Wellington, New Zealand was laid by the Duke of Cornwall and York, who later became King George V with construction commencing in May 1902. The Wellington Town Hall is recognised throughout the world for its wonderful acoustics; often referred to as near perfect. In the 1970-80s a successful campaign was fought against the possible demolition of the Town Hall. Subsequently the organ was restored in 1985/86 and its original specifications have been retained. For the technically minded this splendid Norman and Beard organ consists of four manuals and pedals, 57 speaking stops and 13 couplers.

Liszt’s first work for organ the Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’, S.259 originated from his highly productive early period in Weimar. This version of the score came about as a result of a commission to write a work for the inaugural recital of the magnificent organ reconstructed by Friedrich Ladegast at the Merseburg Cathedral. Liszt visited the Merseburg Cathedral organ a number of times before it was completed in 1855, an instrument that in fact inspired several of his organ compositions.

The theme for the Fantasia and Fugue is based on a chorale from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s highly successful French Grand Opera Le Prophète (The Prophet) in 5 acts from 1849 to a libretto by the eminent Eugène Scribe. Robert Costin writes that Liszt, “went to see the opera (Le Prophète) himself in Dresden and was impressed by much of Meyerbeer’s music…Meyerbeer’s melody clearly intrigued Liszt; its harmonic and melodic characteristics permeated every aspect of the work, lending it an impressive structural coherence”.

The Fantasia and Fugue was published in 1852 as the last of a set of four pieces entitled Illustrations du Prophète, S.414 (1849/50); the first three of the set were for piano. Liszt biographer the composer Humphrey Searle states that the Fantasia and Fugue, “…is certainly not an operatic fantasy. It is based on a chorale sung by three Anabaptists in the first act of the opera, where they call the people to seek re-baptism in the healing water.”A Meyerbeer’s Latin text sung by the trio of Anabaptists Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, iterum venite miseri ad nos, as nos venite populi can be translated as To us, to the water of salvation, come to us again, you who are wretched, come to us, you people. Liszt dedicated the score to Meyerbeer and undertook several revisions on the Fantasia and Fugue before its 1855 première performance by soloist Alexander Winterberger at Merseburg Cathedral.

The Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’ is a substantial score lasting just over thirty minutes. Cast in a single continuous movement the score  has three discernable sections: Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue. Part of the chorale theme, that was Meyerbeer’s own, is located at the start of the opening Fantasia section. Here I was struck by the power and terrific resonance of the Norman and Beard organ. The complete chorale theme is heard in the Adagio in F-sharp, sometimes known as Liszt’s mystical key. I loved Costin’s subtle playing in the meditative Adagio section that has a rather remote feel. Drama abounds in the final section a muscular and vigorous double fugue leading to the exultant conclusion.

A recommendable alternative version of the Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue is performed with drama and assurance by Andreas Rothkopf on the Wilhelm Sauer organ of the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Bad Homburg, Germany on Naxos 8.555079.

The son of an organ builder Julius Reubke only lived a short life before being struck down in his mid-twenties with tuberculosis. Two years before his untimely death in 1858 Reubke had studied with Liszt at Weimar following a recommendation from Hans von Bülow. Liszt took Reubke under this wing and allowed the young man to live at his Altenburg house. I first came across Reubke’s music hearing his Piano Sonata in B flat minor (1857) a couple of years ago at a recital at my local concert society.

Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm from 1857 has a substantial single movement span in three sections. It lasts around twenty six minutes and has considerable programmatic elements. The first edition of Reubke’s score contained printed verses from the 94th Psalm that were closely linked to the score’s movements. Bearing a dedication to Professor Carl Riedel, the composer gave the première of the score on the Friedrich Ladegast organ at Merseburg Cathedral in June 1857.

I’m not sure how often Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm is played today. The world famous organist Sir George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) who served at the Temple Church, London for sixty years had the Reubke score in his repertoire. Thalben-BallB first played the work in 1918 on the Father Smith organ (destroyed by bombing in 1941) at a public recital at St. Clement Danes, The Strand, London. There is a recording of Thalben-Ball playing the Fugue from Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm on a recording of ‘British Organists of the 1920sC.

In the opening section of the Sonata on the 94th Psalm Robert Costin provides a heady kaleidoscope of mood and instrumental colour. The central section Adagio is steeped with a sacred character. I was struck by Reubke’s adventurous writing especially the dark and shadowy excursion to the low registers of the organ at 2:28-2:59. Brisk and joyously uplifting the final section contains closing bars that aptly display the rich and powerful sonority of the instrument.

Soloist Robert Costin who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Pembroke College, Cambridge is currently director of music at Ardingly College, West Sussex. In these scores by Liszt and Reubke, the assured Costin avoids the temptation to rush giving the music ample time to breath. Displaying consummate control he expertly demonstrates the range and luxuriant tone colours of the Norman and Beard organ at Wellington.

Michael Cookson

*Robert Costin is a reviewer for MusicWeb International


The Music of Liszt by Humphrey Searle - Dover Publications, second revised edition (1966) - ISNB not stated. Pg. 87.

B George Thalben-Ball by Jonathon Rennert - Publisher: David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon (1979) - ISBN: 0 7153 7863 5. Pg. 50.

C Fugue from Reubke The 94th Psalm Sonata British Organists of the 1920s, Vol. 2 recorded 1913-1926 AMPHION PHICD-156

See also: Organ Historical Society Catalog and Amphion Recordings



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