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The Organ of St Bavo, Haarlem
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750):
Chaconne from Partita in D minor, BWV1004 [14:24]
Chorale Prelude, Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV659 [5:42]
Chorale Prelude, Jesus Christus Unser Heiland, BWV688 [3:55]
Dietrich BUXTEHUDE (1637-1707):
Toccata & Fugue in F, BuxWV157 [4:55]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847):
Organ Sonata No.6 in D minor, Op.65 No.6 [15:30]
Julius REUBKE (1834-1858):
Sonata on the 94th Psalm [25:40]
Joseph Nolan (organ)
rec. 2017, The Grote Kerk, St Bavo, Haarlem, The Netherlands

The magnificent 1738 Christian Muller organ of St Bavo, Haarlem, is unquestionably one of the true wonders of the organ world. Enveloped within one of the most photogenic and magnificent organ cases known to man, it speaks with astounding clarity into a bright, lively acoustic. In short, a sumptuous treat both visually and aurally, and one which never fails to impress and inspire. Joseph Nolan, who has through his recent series of recordings for Signum Classics, established himself as one of today’s most communicative of organists on disc, is on to a sure-fire winner with this one, even if he has forsaken his more usual recording fare of the French Romantic repertory to focus on Germanic music.

However, this is not just a winner because of the sound of the organ and the musicianship of the organist – both pretty spectacular in their own way – nor, indeed, because of the outstanding quality of the recording itself, engineered by the ever-perceptive Mike Hatch, but because, by a peculiar chance of chemistry, something special seems to have happened during the recording sessions. Everything seems to have come together to create what is a true treasure among organ discs and I would suggest this could well prove to be the organ disc of the decade. If I have a reservation it is with the rather rambling and at times pretentious booklet notes which tend to focus more on the erudition of the writer than the illumination of the music.

But, there again, this music needs little illumination – most, if not all of it, is dear to the heart of just about every organist and lover of organ music; the ‘headline’ work, Reubke’s monumental Sonata on the 94th Psalm, is held by many to be the Everest of German Romantic Organ Literature. Composed in 1857, the Sonata was clearly inspired by the work of Reubke’s teacher, Liszt, yet while confronting any organist who attempts it with difficulties and complexities far beyond what even Liszt presented in his own large-scale organ pieces, it feels entirely idiomatic to the organ. Nolan briefly recounts some of the particular problems the work posed when played on the St Bavo organ in his short introductory essay in the booklet, but none of these is apparent in a performance which flows seamlessly and apparently effortlessly. The clarity of the St Bavo organ comes into its own in illuminating the often dark passages of Reubke’s response to the psalmist’s brutal words of vengeance and evil doings, and while some may miss the more colouristic approach of such players as the ever-eccentric Jean Guillou (on Dorian), the fiery Christopher Herrick (on Hyperion) or the remarkable Brian Runnett (whose long-deleted 1968 recording on the long-forgotten Cathedral label may still stand as the best recorded performance of the Reubke Sonata), Nolan’s focus on the music and on communicating the strong religious fervour behind Reubke’s extraordinary one-time outburst of creative genius, makes this about the most compelling version currently available. Against it, his earlier recording of the piece on the Ripon Cathedral organ (Herald) seems positively paltry; how Nolan has matured as both player and musician in the intervening 16 years.

The remainder of the programme is, in one way or another, centred around the music of J.S. Bach and includes two of his short chorale preludes. Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland is considerably enhanced by a most endearing solo registration and Nolan’s hugely sensitive feel for Bach’s decorated chorale line, while Jesus Christus Unser Heiland has a wonderfully bubbly quality (and stands up unusually well to comparison with Helmut Walcha’s recording of the same prelude on the same organ back in 1967). The disc opens with an arrangement (by the French organist Henri Messerer) of the magnificent Chaconne from the second Partita for unaccompanied violin. Intended for a Cavaillé-Coll organ, with its synonymous pseudo-orchestral effects and blazing reeds, Nolan has done a brilliant job in taming it so that it sounds absolutely right on this distinctly Germanic instrument. Mixing dramatic gesture with glorious technical fluency, this is a simply astounding exhibition both of brilliant organ playing and stunning organ sound.

The other two works on the disc are connected with Bach historically – we do not need to rehearse yet again the story of Bach’s pilgrimage to hear Buxtehude at Lübeck – and musically – the first movement of the Mendelssohn Sonata comprises a set of variations on a chorale theme, Vater Unser, often used by Bach himself. What stands out in Nolan’s performances of these two very different works, is the cohesion and fluency he brings to them. The Buxtehude Toccata flows with an unusual sense of single-minded purpose, its Fugue given an invigorating sprightliness which elevates its otherwise rather jerky subject. After the dazzling toccata which closes the first movement of the Mendelssohn, Nolan magically achieves the near-impossible feat of avoiding any hint of anti-climax as the music moves to a fugue and then on to its subdued Andante finale.

I would have no hesitation is declaring this the finest performance of this Mendelssohn Sonata on record, just as I would have no hesitation is suggesting that here is one of the finest organ recordings of recent years.

Marc Rochester

Previous review: Dominy Clements

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