Gustav Merkel is one of those names who crop up on slightly off the beaten path organ recitals or beefy romantic recitals, most spectacularly with the Sonata in D minor Op.30
which requires two players. Merkel is placed firmly in that mid-German organ tradition which includes names such as Hesse, Rinck, Ritter and Schneider whose influence as performers and teachers extended beyond their nation’s borders. Merkel’s output is primarily of works for piano or organ, including that popular domestic instrument the harmonium. More frequently recorded of his secular pieces are Merkel’s nine organ sonatas: three movement pieces in the classical tradition with a slow movement framed by two faster movements. This Simax set presents a kind of ‘best of’ Merkel performed on instruments from his own time.
Organs of Merkel’s period enjoyed an increasingly orchestral variety of stops. This feature is amply demonstrated in the Fantasia et Fuga a 5 voci, Op.5
, which expands the language of Bach into the realms of a kind of hyper-Mendelssohn. On volume one of this four CD set this three movement piece is plunged into the vast acoustic of Dresden Cathedral and, while superbly spectacular, there is a certain amount of detail lost in the hugeness of it all. This is a good beginning however, heralding the softer voice of the first of a number of chorale preludes from Op.5 and Op.32. The Sonata in D minor Op.30
for two organists is another blockbuster, but being housed in the Stadkirche St. Laurentinus is rather less burdened with extremes of resonance. As with the single-player sonatas, there is a three movement plan involving a spectacular Allegro
, a mellifluous Adagio
and a final Allegro con fuoco-fuga
. There was a trend for organ duets in Saxony, and this piece was also a prize-winning entry to a composition competition in Mannheim in 1858, retaining a certain popularity even in present times. The work retains all of Merkel’s uncomplicated romantic idiom, and with no previous knowledge the casual listener would probably not suspect that there were two players at work here - just one very capable one on a well stacked instrument.
The Fugue on BACH Op.40
continues another trend which followed the growing interest in Bach during the first half of the nineteenth century. Merkel’s fugue is comparable with the first of Schumann’s Six fugues on BACH
, consisting of a long crescendo developing on the rising notes of BACH. Volume one ends with two of Merkel’s organ sonatas. These explore dynamic relationships and contrasts on the organ, mixing fugal elements with freer sonata composition. Although the Sonata No.2
was one of Merkel’s most popular pieces in his own time, the Sonata No.3
is a breeding ground for deeper exploration. The first movement is the most extensive in Merkel’s work in this genre, working with three themes. The Elsterberg organ is a fine instrument and Halgeir Schiager does justice to all of the pieces here, though there is rather a big contrast between this and the Dresden environment. Both of these organs are of Merkel’s time and well suited to music of this tradition, and the history and disposition of both instruments is given in the booklet notes.
Volume two avoids a clash of differing instruments, the Kreutzbach instrument here representing the more conservative end of the romantic period and characterised by a full but generally darker, more woody sound. Once again we are brought in with a rousing piece, the Introduktion und Doppelfuge, Op.34
. The following Doppelfuge
is from Merkel’s Op.3 collection of Drei Fugen
, and his first published work. This substantial piece has an expressive, Brahms-like feel, and leads us nicely into the more up-front opening of the Variationen uber ein Thema von Beethoven, Op.45
. The theme is from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.39 in E major Op.109
, and this appears after the flourish of the introduction. The variations follow the classical pattern of melodic variation over unaltered harmony, with only the fifth and penultimate variation drawing us into a minor key. There is a very nice touch with a soft reprise of the original theme to conclude the otherwise rousing Finale
Other highlights of this disc are the pleasantly lilting rhythms of the Pastorale Op.103
, the thematically related outer movements of the dramatic and fascinatingly compact Fantasie und Fuge, Op.104
and the single movement Fantasie in freiem Style, Op.133
. The melodic inventiveness in this piece is delightful, benefiting from transparent textures in the opening sections, which develop into a dynamic climax. I also like the gruff opening to the Fantasie und Fuge, Op.109
which comes across well on the Kreutzbach organ. The disc concludes with an intriguing double fugue which Merkel introduces after the opening Maestoso
in the third movement of Op.109.
These two discs represent the first installments of a four disc set of Gustav Merkel’s organ music. Well-filled, these nonetheless represent a selection, plucking the best of the pieces from some of the more extended collections and giving us what looks like being most if not all of the sonatas and the grander Fantasie
pieces. This well performed and recorded set is a significant contribution to the romantic organ catalogue, and will hopefully give a justified boost to this composer’s wider representation in today’s concert programmes.