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The Organ of St Bavo, Haarlem
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)

Partita No. 2, BWV 1004: Chaconne (arr. Messerer) [14:24]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707)
Toccata & Fugue in F Major, BuxWV 157 [4:55]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 [5:42]
Trio Jesus Christus Unser Heiland, BWV 688 [3:55]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Sonata in D Minor, Op. 65 No. 6 (1845) [15:30]
Julius REUBKE (1834-1858)
Sonata on the 94th Psalm (1857) [25:40]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 2017, Grote Kerk, St Bavo, Haarlem, the Netherlands.

This is Joseph Nolan’s tenth recording for Signum Records, following on from a magnificent cycle of Widor’s organ symphonies and recitals such as ‘Midnight at St Etienne du Mont’. Anyone who has visited St Bavo in Haarlem will remember seeing the incredible Christian Muller organ, an instrument that fills an entire end wall of a church that in itself is not far off cathedral size. Even when silent, the organ looms above you as a massively powerful presence. I’ve performed in and attended concerts there myself and can attest to what Nolan describes as its “perilously lively” acoustic. The tempi chosen for any recording will always be a judicious line chosen to ensure clarity without losing the dramatic content of some of the works here, in particular Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm around which this programme has been built.

Bach’s Chaconne in D minor would more usually take the place of a grand finale, but it kicks off this recital in superb fashion, Henri Messerer’s expert arrangement being an all-embracing demonstration of the organ’s range and colour. I’ve heard several recordings of the St Bavo organ and have experienced it live, and sound engineer Mike Hatch’s capturing of the instrument is as virtuoso as the playing itself, with a perfect balance between atmospheric acoustic resonance and the colour and space created by the registers themselves. Buxtehude’s Toccata & Fugue is an excellent demonstration of the master organist whom Bach walked hundreds of miles to hear back in 1705, the improvisatory character of its opening toccata giving us a glimpse of what all the fuss must have been about, and both sections the kind of extrovert and celebratory work that would have inspired the younger Bach no end. Bach’s famously noble and beautiful chorale prelude on Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is well played here, though you’ll want to take care with playback for the reedy stop used for the melody. If your treble tends to peak within a certain range it might turn out to be, as Peter Leeds might once said, ‘too piercing, man’. With the Trio Jesus Christus Unser Heiland from Part III of the Clavier-Übung, the melody is heard on the pedals with Bach’s tricky elaborations skipping over the top with nimble lightness.

Mendelssohn’s love of Bach’s music is well documented, and his Sonata in D Minor, Op. 65 No. 6 opens with a chorale on the Lutheran hymn Vater unser im Himmelreich that the old master would no doubt have appreciated. The first movement has variations on this tune and it is drawn upon throughout the work’s movements, all played without a break. While this is an affectionate look back on the old master, there is a virtuoso element to parts of this sonata that are pure Mendelssohn, and it’s not for nothing that he is considered central to the re-vitalisation of a rather moribund organ tradition in this period.

Julius Reubke was the son of an organ builder and became one of Liszt’s favourite students after entering the great man’s vibrant Weimar circle in 1853. Success and greatness would surely have followed, but Reubke’s life was cut short by tuberculosis, an illness from which he was already suffering at the time the remarkable Sonata on the 94th Psalm was being written. This work is very much part of the Lisztian hothouse of liberation from formal structure and intensification of “Neues Deutsch aesthetic, vocabulary, texture/enmeshing, motivic working-out and rhythmic cross-referencing” as described by Ateş Orga in his booklet notes, which also includes an analysis by Choonhae Lee. This is high, even extreme Romanticism, with extravagant sonorities, a huge amount of chromatic tension and masses of drama, so be prepared for an exhausting workout.

There are a few notable recordings of Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm, one of the most impressive being Simon Preston on Deutsche Grammophon from way back in 1985, coupled with Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on "Ad nos, ad salutarem undam". I also had a listen to Joseph Berger and Hans Christopher Becker-Foss on the Red Note label from 2010, and John Scott’s recent version on Musical Concepts. Both of these are ‘singles’, but as downloads that is of little consideration. Each has its own atmosphere and quality, but only Preston is a real competitor to Nolan from this very limited sample, with John Scott in particular sounding surprisingly ungainly. There are many more deserving of consideration if you can find them. I have for instance always had time for Kevin Bowyer on the Nimbus label, and his recording at Odense Cathedral in Denmark has both strong character and great poise. There is also a CPO disc with Reubke’s complete piano and organ works, the Sonata played with energy and skill by Luca Scandali on an instrument with a rather noisy action. The player perhaps most associated with this work is Jean Guillou, who recorded it along with Reubke’s Piano Sonata in B-flat minor. Released on the Dorian label in 1989, Guillou’s recording of the organ sonata is a fascinating performance, but the Aeolian Skinner organ at Trinity Church in New York does alas sound a bit stuffy and dry for my taste.

For musicality and sheer magnificence of sound Joseph Nolan at St Bavo is hard to beat. The instrument and its acoustic do offer a big advantage over most of the alternatives, but Nolan’s performance takes us both into the complex bones of the piece as well as impressing us with the tidal majesty of its climactic powers. For a grand organ experience and some fine repertoire, this is an excellent recital. It’s shame early plans to include some Dutch repertoire never came to fruition, but with high hopes of success for this release maybe we’ll be treated to a return visit to this uniquely special venue before too long.

Dominy Clements


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