Paul HINDEMITH (1895 - 1963)
Sonata I for organ (1937) [17.26]
Sonata II for organ (1937) [10.30]
Sonata III for organ (1940) [11.35]

Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Variations on a Recitative Op.40 (1941) [14:26]
Two fragments of a Sonata for Organ (1941) [3:37]

Ernst PEPPING (1901-1981)
Three Fugues on BACH (1943) [20:55]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. 17-19 March 1993, Odense Cathedral, Denmark

NIMBUS NI 5411 [79:30]
Paul Hindemith’s three organ sonatas are superbly composed and nicely compact. They have with some justification been described as cornerstones of 20th century organ repertoire. Having a look at some alternatives, I spotted Paul Shoemaker’s positive review of Anton Heiller’s recording on the Warner Apex label, and there is another recording coupled with some of Reger’s organ pieces on the Chandos label, but recordings of these fine works are not exactly thick on the ground. My own reference is another excellent performance; that of Peter Hurford on Decca 417 159-2. Compared with Kevin Bowyer’s Marcussen instrument at Odense Cathedral, the German Rieger Organ Hurford plays has a rounder tone and a far gentler atmosphere in movements such as the Sehr langsam in Sonata I. These differences are only really relevant in A/B comparisons, and both instruments and performances are filled with colour and contrast. While the Odense sound can be harder hitting in forte passages, the greater sense of life Bowyer brings to these pieces is ultimately preferable to my mind. The Nimbus recording is cut at a higher level so one has to be nimble with the volume control before giving it plus points for greater detail: both are very fine indeed, but in the end it is Bowyer’s playing and the Odense instrument which take the laurels.
Having a look at Sonata III as the one I know best, it is clear that Bowyer has a more responsive swell, the graduations in dynamic much clearer in the first movement, “Ach Gott, wem soll ich’s klagen...” and indeed throughout the entire piece. The contrast in colour between registers is a good deal more acute here as well, generating textural interest as well as beautifully expressing the harmonies and all-important melodic content. Hurford’s atmospheric playing in “Wacht auf, mein Hort” is gorgeous, but somehow more objectified than Bowyer. Hurford is heavenly and rarefied, Bowyer more earthy and inspiring, and he manages to make the final “So wünsch ich ihr” sound more sprightly and fun than I’ve heard before. Moving in reverse, the same goes for the opening Lebhaft in Sonata II. Although this isn’t ‘light’ music there is certainly nothing heavy in the way Bowyer presents any of these pieces, with the strong lyrical qualities of slow movements played with clear and expressive phrasing, the more dramatic sections being more fleeting moments of contrast rather than weighty swathes of Teutonic angst.
With only a few brief extras by Distler and Kropfreiter on Hurford’s Decca disc, the couplings from Bowyer on Nimbus are far more substantial and interesting. Nicholas Williams’ booklet notes tell us that Arnold Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative Op.40 is his only completed organ work and his longest for any solo instrument. Schoenberg partially reverted to post-romantic chromaticism in this piece, rather than extending the serial techniques which were already an established part of his output at the time. The work is not particularly ‘difficult’ to listen to as a concert piece, but does have plenty of strangeness going on and requires a few listens to unpick. It “bridges the stylistic gap between the tonal complexity of the Op.9 Chamber Symphony and the more dissonant language of his later music.” Kevin Bowyer certainly has the measure of this piece’s dramatic and wide-ranging extremes of register and content, and the clarity with which counterpoint and the treatment of themes come across is very useful. Schoenberg’s unfinished Sonata movements precede the Variations, and are probably the original response to the commission which led to the completed Op.40. These fragments show how wide the contrast is between the chromatic idiom of the Variations and Schoenberg’s serial style. The atonal character of the movements make the music more abstract, while the sense of thematic direction and textural gesture are still very much present – a duality which makes one wish the Sonata had been completed, perhaps even in preference to the Variations.
The programme for this fine CD concludes with Ernst Pepping’s Three Fugues on BACH. With the familiar four note sequence as a handle, these fugues are organic and appealing, exploring polyphony according to the strict rules of Bach’s academic style, but giving us an expressive and ‘modern’ take on the fugue form. The second of these is a particularly fine double fugue, the slow and monumental Andante of which is followed by a magnificent and harmonically fascinating Maestoso passionato, the final sparkly bells finishing the recital with a fine flourish.
The quality of recording is every bit as fine here as for Kevin Bowyer’s complete recordings of J.S. Bach’s organ work, now available on a handy and highly recommended MP3 edition. As interpretations of Hindemith’s Organ Sonatas go, this is as good as any I know, and better than most if not all.
Dominy Clements
As good as any, and better than most if not all.