Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Complete Organ Works:-
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO 9 (1856) [4:46]
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10 (1857) [6:15]
Fugue in A flat minor, WoO 8 (1856) [6:56]
Choral Prelude and Fugue in A minor on "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid", WoO 7 [7:26]
11 Chorale Preludes, op. posth. 122 (1896) [33:34]
Fugue in A flat minor [<WoO 8] [6:02]
Choral Prelude, "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid" [<WoO 7] [2:21]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Odense Cathedral, Denmark. No date given. c. 1989? DDD
NIMBUS NI5262 [68:40]

Brahms is hardly known for his organ music, and indeed he wrote very little of it - an hour's worth in total, a mere five works. Yet the Lutheran music he grew up with at St Michael's Church in Hamburg exerted a major influence on him and his compositions. Also he retained a lifelong interest in early music, expressed to a considerable degree in these few organ works.

Brahms wrote all but the 11 Chorale Preludes in his early twenties. The disc opens with the very lively Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO 9, a short but exhilarating introduction to Brahms's organ music for anyone not familiar with it. The Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10 is similarly electrifying, and in both parts there is more than a nod towards the D minor Toccata and Fugue BWV 565 attributed to J.S. Bach. The sheer quality of the writing in these two works is overwhelming, yet their ebullience is not typical of his organ works in general.

The chromatic Fugue in A flat minor is a much more sober, almost lugubrious affair. There are two versions of this on the disc - the second one is taken from the original 'first draft' manuscript, and included for completeness' sake only, according to Malcolm MacDonald's notes. It is certainly less convincing and altogether less moving than the later rewrite, is not without interest.

The chorale Brahms chose for his Prelude and Fugue, "O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid", WoO 7 was an anonymous one from the Mainz Songbook of 1628, reflecting his interest in early music. The deceptively straightforward Prelude leads into a beautiful, melancholic Fugue, whose subject is only loosely derived from the chorale. An early draft of the Chorale Prelude, this time fugue-less, is also included, again for the sake of completeness. At barely two minutes in length, and more threadbare than the original, it is of purely musicological interest.

A particularly compelling reason for buying this disc lies in the fact that the 11 Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 constituted Brahms's very last work, although they were not published until 1902. From the magnificent opening chorale, 'Mein Jesu, der du mich', to the tenderly poignant last, 'O Welt, ich muss dich lassen' ('O World, I must leave thee'), this superb work is a perfect summation of Brahms the composer, with his immaculate ability to make the music of the giants on whose shoulders he knew he stood - in this instance, Johann Sebastian Bach - part of his own time. The Preludes are full of contrapuntal character and variety, and each is a jewel, from the fleeting but glorious 'Herzlich tut mich erfreuen', to the warm glow of 'Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen', even the impossibly long sustained chord at the end of the elegiac 'Herzliebster Jesu'.

The work is all the more touching in that, so close to the end of his life, and shortly after his beloved Clara Schumann's demise, Brahms was clearly aware of his own mortality. As if to underscore the fact, he sets 'O Welt, ich muss dich lassen' twice. Yet there is a subtle equivocation in the unquestionable spirituality of this music that matches Brahms's own scepticism. Perhaps these are homages to a god of the musical kind.

The organ of the cathedral at Odense, more commonly known as St Canute's (Sct Knuds, in Danish), was built by Marcussen and Sn in 1862, though retaining the magnificent original Baroque faade. Marcussen expanded it twice, in 1934 and in 1965, so that today it has 56 stops, listed helpfully in the booklet - albeit it rather unhelpfully in Danish. It makes an aptly awe-inspiring noise, and is played with great authority and insight by Kevin Bowyer. Even at this early stage in his career - the disc was originally published in 1990 - was already one of the great organists of modern times.

Sound quality is excellently balanced and in general very good, although there is a little background hiss noticeable at the beginnings and ends of tracks - like the sound of wind rushing through trees. The CD booklet includes decent notes on the music by Malcolm MacDonald, and the melodies of the 11 Chorale Preludes are all thoughtfully supplied. Curiously, the back page and inlay claim the disc is not only mastered and manufactured in England, but also recorded there! The cover photo ought to be Odense cathedral, but is one of Karl Schinkel's imagined ones.

Byzantion

The organ makes an aptly awe-inspiring noise, and is played with great authority and insight.