Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
The Complete Organ Music
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO9 [5:47]
Chorale Prelude; “O Traurigkeit, O Herzelied”, WoO7 [6:56]
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO10 [7:36]
Fugue in A flat minor, WoO8 [5:50]
Eleven Chorale Preludes, Op.122 [31:39]
Nicholas Danby (organ)
rec. Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, London, 1982
CRD 3404 [59:09]

Cynics might suggest that Brahms’s sudden interest in both the organ and church music for his last numbered opus, completed in June 1896 around 10 months before his death, indicates something of, if not a deathbed conversion, at least a hedging of bets on there being a Divine Being willing to be persuaded by late evidence of faith. Certainly the Christian faith had been signally ignored by Brahms in his works up to that point. Conscious of his own mortality, Brahms (so the cynics argue) realised that all he could offer his Creator by way of a Heavenly admission CV were a few insignificant settings of Biblical texts and A German Requiem. The 11 Chorale Preludes, Op.122 possibly served as insurance against Eternal Damnation.

Cynical or not, there is a certain allure to that thesis, not least because the 11 Chorale Preludes would otherwise indicate a sudden and dramatic change of direction in Brahms’s output. I have never heard anyone suggest that, had Brahms lived on, what might have he achieved on the organ front? It is inconceivable that these 11 miniatures are anything other than a retrospective or, as Grove puts it, “the unique synthesis of historical and modern that lies at the core of Brahms’s musical personality”. In short, they revisit Brahms’s great hero, Bach, with late nineteenth century harmonies and emotions, and do nothing to advance the course of organ music development.

Cynics also suggest that the popularity of these 11 Chorale Preludes lies more in the desperate desire of organists to jump into the mainstream of music and play something by composers whose names are widely familiar and respected outside the organ world. After Bach, organists have generally had to inhabit a dark underworld of musical existence peopled by composers whose names never impinge on the wider musical community. The name Brahms gives legitimacy to an instrument otherwise shunned by the wider musical community.

Again, there is some truth in this, and the fact that dire works like the Fugue in A flat minor get an airing has to be more because of Brahms’s reputation than because of its own musical value. Certainly Nicholas Danby, in his immaculately prepared account cannot save this from its terminally glutinous texture; while strong as his performances are, he fails to convince that any of the four early works deserve a place in the repertory on their own terms. The Farm Street organ, as it was almost a quarter of a century ago, has a solid Englishness about it which manifests itself in some pretty hefty diapason stops and a paucity of bright upper harmonics. In many ways, this makes it the ideal instrument for this music, which makes few colouristic demands on the instrument. Danby finds what is needed to make the music sound right, but the performances rest wholly on his musicality rather than on the aural effects of the organ itself.

Forgetting the early works – exercises in Bach-style writing which mostly date from the mid-1850s – the musical interest in this disc is in the 11 Chorale Preludes, and while it is pretty common to hear them played today in church as voluntaries or even as gentle recital-fillers, they have not generally attracted the attention of major players on disc. Possibly the most powerful competition to Danby’s recording is Robert Parkins’ 1994 recording for Naxos, which remains for me the best available, while Kevin Bowyer’s 1990 Nimbus disc from Odense Cathedral in Denmark, with its mixture of vivid organ sound and a demonstrative player add spice to the music, even if at the expense of stylistic integrity. Danby tries a lot harder to be idiomatic and, to a certain extent, blunts the music’s few but potent charms.

Many of the chorale preludes are so closely modelled on Bach’s precedents that they lack real individuality. In these, Danby is an honest and workmanlike player making no attempt to state their case above their value, but treating them with the care and respect they deserve. But a few do have a real emotional punch and a distinctly unique character, and here his performances seem a little too deliberate to let the music sound entirely at its ease. Nevertheless there is a lovely performance, a model of simplicity and innocence, of Schmücke dich, O liebe Seele, as well as an endearing one of the almost naively affecting, Es is ein Ros’ entsprungen with its tiny, clipped melodic phrases alternating between soprano and tenor registers. The emotional throbbing of the second Herzlich tut mich verlangen prelude never gets to be too oppressive as Danby strides through the piece with a purposeful tread which gives it focus if not always emotional impact.

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the death (in 1997) of Nicholas Danby. If nothing, else, this disc comes as a timely reminder of an organist who put musicality above effect and for whom the organ was a servant of the music rather than of its own aural effects.

Marc Rochester

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