Gustav MERKEL (1827-1885)
Organ Works - Vol. III

Sonata no.4 in F minor, op.115 [17:07]
Postlude, op.44 no.3 [2:30]
Chorale Studies - Ten Variations on the Chorale 'Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten, op.116 [16:21]
Sonata no.5 in D minor, op.118 [14:23]
Fantasy in D minor, op.176 [8:07]
Sonata no.6 in E minor, op.137 [18:28]
Halgeir Schiager (1821/1896 Buchholz organ)
rec. St-Marien-Kirche, Barth, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, 19-21 May 2006. DDD
SIMAX PSC 1275 [76:56]

This is the third of four CDs by Halgeir Schiager of the most important organ works of the north German composer Gustav Merkel. The fourth (PSC1320) was released concurrently. The first and second volumes were released together in 2009 (PSC1273,1274 - see review of both).
Norwegian organist Halgeir Schiager's most notable recordings hitherto have been his five volumes of Czech composer Petr Eben's organ music for Hyperion (CDA 67194-8, released 2000-06), for which he was widely praised. He comes to Merkel as an academic expert on the composer, having presented his doctoral thesis at the Norwegian Academy of Music on Merkel's organ music. In all his Merkel recordings, Schiager performs on instruments that the composer himself would have used, in this case a full-blooded 19th-century Carl August Buchholz organ in the St-Marien-Kirche at Barth on Germany's Baltic coast. Here, once again, he is a fine advocate for Merkel's undeservedly neglected music, technically assured and winningly confident.
In his lifetime Merkel was pretty famous as an organist, and his own music was popular not only in Europe, but even in America. Like many 19th century composers, however, he fell victim to fashion, dictated in part by self-appointed mavens, who derided his music as 'derivative' - meaning simply that it was nostalgic and non-innovative rather than forward-looking and exploratory. Merkel is not entirely forgotten today, in fact - he does at least have an entry in the New Grove dictionary, albeit lacking the standard list of works. His organ method continued to be used by students right through the 20th century.
As the booklet notes indicate, Merkel's organ music is reminiscent of that of the younger Josef Rheinberger, himself sadly rather neglected - a more meaningful reference might be Mendelssohn or Max Reger. Moreover, Merkel spent the last thirty years of his life as organist in Dresden. Given also his Lutheran beliefs, it is hardly revelatory to say that the spirit of the 'Dresden Hofcompositeur' Johann Sebastian Bach also looms large in these works - nowhere more so than in the terrific fugue that closes the Sonata in D minor.
In his programme Schiager includes a single Postlude from Merkel's four op.44. In his notes he does not explain the absence of the remaining three, which do not appear on any of the other volumes. On the evidence of his miniature firework, more's the pity! The dramatic Fantasy in D minor is longer but quite similar, with an interpolated reflective passage, and one of the shamefully few of Merkel's works still in the organ repertoire. The Chorale Studies op.116 are superbly paced and sometimes brilliantly virtuosic. These ten colourful variations on 'Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten" really ought to be performed frequently, not to mention recorded by others. Like the other works in Schiager's recital, this is a first recording.
Unusually, all nine of Merkel's Organ Sonatas are in a minor key. They come in the same traditional format: three five-minute movements, basically fast-slow-fast. Their classical structure, detail, conciseness and melodic and harmonic attractiveness will surely leave any audience wondering why they are not still appearing on programmes across Europe and America! The spectacular chorale-based fugue that concludes the E minor Sonata offers a tantalising glimpse of Merkel letting his hair down, and leaves the listener eager to get hold of volume 4!
The attractively designed English-German-Norwegian booklet can be downloaded in PDF form for free here. Schiager's notes are fairly dry, focusing on technical description, but there is a lot of detail, including a separate article on the different kinds of organs Merkel was familiar with, and a very full disposition and piece-by-piece registrations section.
Editing is very good, but sound quality is reasonable rather than brilliant, slightly muffled in the deeper notes, with a hint of distortion in the loudest sections. One other minor quibble is the lack of composition dates, though it may be that there is no precise information on these.
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A tantalising glimpse of Merkel … leaves the listener eager to get hold of volume 4!