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Passacaglia - Variations on a theme
Hendrick ANDRIESSEN (1892 - 1981)
Thema met Variaties [7:01]
Joseph RHEINBERGER (1839 - 1901)
Sonata No.8 in E minor Op.132 [23:25]
Flor PEETERS (1903 - 1986)
Toccata, Fugue et Hymne sur Ave Maris Stella Op.28 [8:36]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
Sonata No.6, Op.65 No.6 [12:57]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Passacaglia in C minor BWV582
Derek Longman (organ)
rec. Haileybury Chapel, Hertfordshire, England, 25-26 October 2008
REGENT REGCD306 [65:52] 
Experience Classicsonline

“The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free” is Stravinsky’s aptly chosen quote which heads the liner-note of this intelligently programmed and well performed CD. The premise here is that all of the music is either in the form of theme and variations or makes use of the passacaglia principle where a melodic or chordal sequence - usually in the bass line - is repeated whilst the upper parts elaborate and vary musical material based upon it. Stravinsky’s insightful comment distils the essence of the fascination composers have had over the centuries for this seemingly limited musical concept. I do like how this programme has been structured: 2 Sonatas which in turn make use of Passacaglia or Variation form framed by separate works which approach the same musicological Rubik’s cube.

Regent Records have made a justly earned reputation for the quality of their recordings. This disc is no exception. I had not heard the 1998 Klais organ in Haileybury Chapel before but it is clearly a beautiful instrument superbly caught by the Regent engineers. The organist here is Derek Longman who worked with the builders from the original commissioning and specification through to installation and beyond. So, if anyone knows the full capabilities of the organ it is he.  

Longman’s programme opens with Hendrick Andriessen’s powerful and granitic Thema met Variaties. This is Andriessen’s most widely played piece and the sense of its gradual evolution and expansion is well caught by Longman. This very much sets the tone for the whole recital. These are cleanly played carefully technically adept and considered performances of serious pieces of music. Just occasionally I wish that Longman had risked a more rhetorical flamboyant approach. Its not that this is “safe” playing but it is certainly sober. The first movement of the Rheinberger Sonata No.8 suffers from this to a degree. Interesting to note from the liner that the eminent conductor Hans von Bülow considered Rheinberger “… a truly ideal teacher of composition”. Certainly the first movement, in its rigorous working out of the fugue, has something of the scholarly exercise to it. Perhaps Rheinberger was unable to break free of the shackles implied in Stravinsky’s quote to create something greater than the form might suggest. Likewise, the following Intermezzo suffers from an element of the pedestrian. The sounds Longman conjures from the Haileybury organ are quite beautiful and I must stress recorded with as much fidelity by the Regent engineers as I have ever heard. I suppose, my criticism is that I started listening more to the engineering than the music! The final Passacaglia is by some way the longest and most impressive movement of the Sonata. In a very Bachian way it builds from a simple monodic linear statement of the bass line into a grand peroration. In fact it really is modelled on Bach’s model so further praise to the programming which allows one to conduct an almost immediate “compare and contrast”. Longman is impressive here in the way he controls the near ten minute span of the movement my only textural query being if sometimes the Passacaglia theme tends too dominate the balance at the expense of the musical material developing from it. Flor Peeters speaks with an immediately more dramatic musical voice. The use of the ancient plainsong chant Ave Maria Stella is to my ear far more interesting than anything Rheinberger achieves. The fusion of the ancient chant within a modern setting is brilliantly timeless - the highlight of the disc.

Mendelssohn’s embracing of Christianity at the expense of his Jewish heritage has been the topic of recent television programmes. How much of that was professional pragmatism is still unclear. Certainly, his boundless admiration for Bach was based, I am sure, on the recognition of Bach compositional genius rather than his religious beliefs per se. So when Mendelssohn uses Chorale motifs in works such as the Organ Sonata Op.65 No.6 it is aping the technique rather than the religious impetus behind it. I have never been overly inspired by these relatively late works - certainly an innocent ear coming to these expecting the next Octet, Violin Concerto, or Midsummer’s Night Dream would find them dry affairs. Again, for all his undemonstrative technique and tasteful playing I am not sure Longman is the musical personality to convince me of this music’s potential greatness. Comparing this performance to that by Wouter van der Broek (part of the 40 CD Brilliant Classics Mendelssohn Masterworks B00062FLJ2) reveals that there is more drama to be had from this piece. Van der Broek is substantially slower but curiously his more European sounding organ - large reeds to the fore - aids the drama rather than Longman’s more mellifluous yet ultimately duller reading. The same nagging concern continues into the final piece - Bach’s extraordinary Passacaglia in C minor BWV582. One suspects this was the piece from which the rest of the programme sprang. Longman opts for a measured approach. Peter Hurford adopting a resolutely non-authentic interventionist approach on his Decca Bach, J.S.: Great Organ Works set sets an assertive tempo and a sound that I have to say I prefer. To my mind Bach is one of the great musical dramatists and to perform him in a cerebral somewhat dry way is to loose the essential humanity of the man. Again, Longman is good at allowing the music to develop over the longer span but ultimately I don’t find his performance as viscerally exciting as many.

An intelligent programme, well performed and beautifully engineered but lacking that crucial last drop of musical personality.

Nick Barnard
















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