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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Complete Organ Sonatas Nos. 1-6 Op 65 (1844-5): No. 1 in F minor [15:31]; No. 2 in C minor [10:04]; No. 3 in A major [9:26]; No. 4 in B flat major [13:28]; No. 5 in D major [8:36]; No. 6 in D minor [14:15]
William Whitehead (organ)
rec. The Ballroom, Buckingham Palace, London, 15-16 April 2009
CHANDOS CHAN 10532 [72:09]
Experience Classicsonline

When Mendelssohn was given the commission to write these works, it was for a set of “Six Voluntaries”. The recordings of earlier examples of such Voluntaries by players such as Jennifer Bate and Margaret Phillips show just how much variety exists within the form whilst also demonstrating what one assumes the publisher might have expected. Mendelssohn however went beyond these entertaining if often somewhat insubstantial works and the final result is a set of Sonatas standing somewhere between the older Voluntary form and the scale, if not the form, of the Sonata as it had evolved for other instruments and as the term had been used by J S Bach, that great influence on Mendelssohn. Many movements are based on Chorales, in particular the amazing set of Variations that form the larger part of the final Sonata. That Sonata also shows the other characteristic of parts of these Sonatas in its final movement that echoes the Songs without Words and, even more, “O rest in the Lord” from “Elijah”. As a whole they form a fascinating and (at least as they are heard in this recording) very lovable set of pieces.

Although I have heard these Sonatas many times and have listened to many recordings of them, I have often found it difficult to make any real connection with them. I suspect that the reason for this is an inherent problem of the instruments on which they are played. Any material degree of resonance will simply turn Mendelssohn’s carefully contrived and detailed textures into mush, or alternatively over-inflate music of a more domestic character. In such cases I can see what I expect to hear in the score but simply cannot hear it for the resonance. I have enjoyed them much more on smaller instruments in a drier acoustic but that can bring a consequent reduced impact of the music. Here however I find the answer to my earlier problems, and as a result I have played this disc incessantly with increasing pleasure. The music, the performer, the instrument and the acoustic all fit each other perfectly and have been very well served by the engineers.

The organ used here was originally built in 1818 by Henry Cephas Lincoln for the Music Room in the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion. It was moved to Buckingham Palace in the 1850s. This was after the composer’s many visits to Victoria and Albert but its specification, set out in the booklet, and design are typical of the larger organs that Mendelssohn would have come across in his visits to England. The acoustic is neither too resonant nor too dry, and the very beautiful and characterful tone of the instrument is always a great pleasure in itself. William Whitehead clearly understands the idiom and scale of this music and his phrasing and articulation are admirably suited to it. For me this has been one of the most important issues of this anniversary year, and I very much hope that it will be followed by the composer’s remaining organ music from the same source.

John Sheppard


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