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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Complete Organ Works
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO 10 [7:15]
Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 [33:34]
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO 9 [5:44]
Choral Prelude and Fugue in A minor O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid, WoO 7 [8:58]
Fugue in A flat minor, WoO 8 [8:41]
Arnold SCHOENBERG (1874-1951)
Variations on a Recitative, Op. 40 [17:01]
Tom Bell (organ)
rec. Schulze Organ of St Bartholomew’s Church, Armley, Leeds on 28-30 October 2015
REGENT REGCD484 [81:17]

In his liner notes for this CD, organist Tom Bell remarks “in his preludes, fugues and chorale-based works Brahms has left organists a store of treasure”. Well, about an hour’s worth of treasure if that’s the case, but given Brahms’ stature and his quite modest output across all genres, the store should be well worth visiting. Bell then continues “which leaves one in no doubt just how indebted he was to Bach”, and here is the crux of the matter: is this an hour well spent with Brahms, or would it be better spent with his source of inspiration?

Brahms was in his early twenties studying Bach when he composed the majority of these works, and largely pre-date the ‘mature’ Brahms as we know him. Of the remainder, the Op. 122 Chorale preludes were written in the last year of his life as a tribute to Bach, often recalling the mood of the Orgelbüchlein. They’re from the period of the Four Serious Songs and the late piano works, and comparably mellow. The Chorale Prelude on O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid was of Brahms’ early period, while the accompanying Fugue was written somewhat later. Despite Bach’s almost omnipresent shadow on the history of these works, Bell insists they are “still thoroughly Brahmsian”. That may be so and discernible at a detail level, but without doubt for me, Bell’s presentation of these works underlines their derivation and, perhaps, why they are not better known. Without the strongest advocacy, they can come across neither as great Brahms nor particularly worthy of their Bachian inspirations.

Complete recordings of these works are relatively few, currently available examples being Kevin Bowyer on Nimbus (review) and Nicholas Danby on CRD (review). The Kċre Nordstoga survey on Simax appears to be out of print. Two critical success factors emerge from these recordings: choice of organ and vibrancy of performance. Bowyer, Nordstoga and Danby all use fresh, bright sounding organs with full, colourful tone and clear profile; in Odense Cathedral, Oslo Cathedral and the Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception, London, respectively. As recorded, the Schulze Organ played by Tom Bell has a mellow, slightly recessed sound with a tonal balance favouring the lower registers. As fine and grand an instrument as it is, it may not be the best vehicle for this repertoire. Two aspects of Bell’s performance also stand out. In each of the early preludes and fugues, he takes a minute or so longer than Kevin Bowyer, and in a couple of instances considerably longer than Nicholas Danby. That’s not to say quicker is better, but together with some sense of strain in Bell’s execution of the tougher passages, there is an overall loss of buoyancy.  He also favours quite steady tempi, particularly in the fugues, bringing a didactic air that verges on the turgid at times. In their autumnal beauty, the late Chorale Preludes fare better, perhaps a combination of the mature Brahms, and a better match to the organ and the organist’s approach. Programmatically, though, the Chorale Preludes might better have been separated from the earlier works than sitting in their midst.

As a ‘filler’, Bell provides Schoenberg’s Variations on a Recitative which he describes as “one of the most important pieces of twentieth-century organ repertoire, and one of his own greatest works.” No performer bias there! The connection between Schoenberg and Brahms is reasonably established by pointing out the late romantic crossover between their eras, the fact that Brahms at least knew of Schoenberg - offering to pay for the young composer to attend the Vienna Conservatoire, and their embrace of contrapuntal writing, following a tradition stretching back to Bach. The Schoenberg work is indeed a substantial and complex one, comprising ten variations, cadenza and fugue. As with the Brahms, I felt that unravelling its complexities would have benefited from cleaner articulation by Bell and greater acoustic delineation of the organ in the recording, Variation V for example becoming a bit of a blur. I do though very much like Bell’s shaping of the piece, and emphatically agree with him that it bears repeated listening.

The CD booklet is in English only, but also provides a comprehensive specification and history of the Schulze Organ. It was built in 1869 and initially occupied its own auditorium in Leeds, not being installed at St Bartholomew’s Church until 1879. The organ was rebuilt in 1905 and then restored, with alterations, in 2004. My comments on its sound are made with all respect to the vicissitudes of recording such beasts, and acutely aware that personal taste is largely in play here; there is an ‘eavesdropping’ aura to this recital, particularly in its quieter moments, that I don’t find the most engaging.

Turning things upside down, my enduring impression of this CD is of the Schoenberg Variations. This is more obvious when you consider that Schoenberg was at the height of his powers when he composed the piece, while the Brahms works are from the extreme ends of his composing career; his formative studies and emulation of Bach’s organ legacy, and his latter period when simplicity and a sense of serenity marked his music. If this is Brahms that merits even an hour of our attention, I believe it needs to be more persuasively presented than it is here.
Des Hutchinson



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