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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a Theme by Haydn Op. 56 (arr. Lionel Rogg) [23:49]
Theme and Variations Op. 18 (arr. Manuel Gera) [10:26]
Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel Op. 24 (arr. Rachel Laurin) [35:09]
Christoph Schoener (organs)
rec. 2017, St. Michealis Church, Hamburg
Reviewed in SACD stereo.
MDG 949 2051-6 SACD [69:34]

This release follows some fine recordings with Christoph Schoener of Reger and Reger-arranged Bach from this venue, and with such consistently high results I’m now always on the lookout for new recordings from this source. As far as I can tell this is the only title available with this repertoire in organ arrangements, so quality and novelty would seem to be assured.

Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn is one of his best-known works, and most often heard in its orchestral version though it was originally written for two pianos. This is a score which offers a great deal of juicy material for any medium, and Christoph Schoener takes full advantage of the contrasts in colour and dynamic available from the three linked organs in the St. Michealis Church in Hamburg. MDG makes a good case for hearing these instruments in their 2222+ speaker set-up, which adds a vertical element as well as the more usual surround or stereo experience. I tend to listen in SACD stereo on headphones which is very fine for this recording, but the surround-experience in a well-balanced 5.1 system will give you an excellent feel for the acoustic which, along with the various positions of the organs, is all part of the essence of this recording.

The full title of Manuel Gera’s arrangement is Theme and Variations in D minor after the 2nd Movement of the String Sextet Op. 18, though aside from some indulgences with expression markings and adaptations towards the organ idiom he seems pretty much to have kept faith with the original score. This is music that lends itself well to the possibilities of the organ, though there are some passages that may sound a little laboured if you are more used to more nimble string or even piano playing. That said, the dramatic pacing of the variations is superbly done here, with the whole shaped elegantly and performed without excess or melodrama.

The Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel Op. 24, originally composed for piano, is heard here in a transcription by Rachel Laurin made in 1988 and revised in 1997. This evidence of a lively ongoing tradition for such adaptations works very well indeed, with changes of registration both subtle and dramatic. The disposition of each organ is given at the back of the booklet for this release, but the registrations used for each work are not given – documentation that would no doubt require another entire volume of text. One other point is that the variations are not given separate index points, though there is a separate track for the final Fugue to close the Handel Variations.

If you were ever in doubt that the organ can be an instrument with eloquent expressive range and depth, then let this be the recording to convince you otherwise. The Handel Variations have wit, lightness of touch and pastoral charm to go along with the sophistication of Brahms’ inventiveness, and I can guarantee you will also hear new things in the Haydn Variations. A good orchestral recording of the latter still wins of course, but if you are a fan of the score then this organ version should provide little if anything by way of disappointment. Christoph Schoener’s tempi and sensitive phrasing carry us along on an air-cushioned journey that is very enjoyable indeed.

Dominy Clements


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