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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Organ Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.65 No.1 [15:23]
Sigfird KARG-ELERT (1877-1933)
Symphonic Chorale “Jesu, meine Freude”, Op.87 No.2 [19:51]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Chorale Fantasia “Hallelujah! Gott zu loben” [13:35]
Julius REUBKE (1834-1858)
Sonata in C minor on the 94th Psalm [25:20]
Roger Sayer (organ)
rec. Temple Church, London, 2018

Here is a programme of 19th century German heavyweights played on a solidly English Harrison & Harrison organ dating back to 1954. It should be a recipe for stodge and solidity; after all, of the organ’s 66 speaking stops, only 20 are above 8-foot pitch. It should be as digestible as a sauerkraut sandwich. It should hit you in the pit of the stomach with such a sickening thud that you feel the need to come up for air. But it doesn’t. David Hinitt’s excellent recording of the Temple Church organ focuses on its bright and airy qualities, while Roger Sayer’s playing has a vitality and vibrancy about it which positively exudes brightness and clarity of thought. The booklet itself gives no information about the organ – I have accessed the Temple church’s own website for my information.

Sayer sets the ball rolling with a strong and purposeful account of Mendelssohn’s F minor Organ Sonata, the distant chorale in the first movement beautifully recessed and the toccata-like figurations in the finale reminding us of Mendelssohn’s gift (when he wasn’t writing for the organ) of delicate little scherzo movements with their fairy-like filigree work. When you hear Mendelssohn played like this, you rather wish the whole disc was devoted to his music (and goodness’ knows, we are in desperate need of really fine recorded performances of Mendelssohn’s organ music).

Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s long, often rambling and immensely complex and intricate Symphonic Chorales, published in 1913, can induce a headache even before the first note is played. No.2, based on Jesu, meine Freude, does have the benefit of one of Karg-Elert’s loveliest creations in its intensely sad and haunting central movement, but framing it are movements of almost daunting detail, where impenetrable chromaticism and impossible figurations rub shoulders with references to the chorale theme which are so abstruse as to be virtually undecipherable to the naked ear. Yet Sayer, in partnership with this tremendous instrument, unravels much of the tortuously befuddled detail and, where it remains impenetrable, flies over it with a freedom born of true virtuosity, which is simply amazing. I’m not sure he sells the horrifically intertwining material of the first movement to me, but I am totally sold on his wonderful virtuoso playing and his masterly registrations; and I sit open-mouthed with admiration as he throws everything he (and the Temple Church organ) has at the last movement, setting off great bolts of virtuosic lightning and huge rumbles of thunderous organ tone. Again praise is due to David Hinitt for capturing this vast dynamic soundscape with such realism (and praise to the organ for holding its wind up so well for that gargantuan final chord!)

When it comes to impenetrable chromatic jungles and convoluted digressions around choral themes, nobody can better Max Reger, and here we have one of his classic Chorale Fantasias, based on Hallelujah! Gott zu loben. In his highly readable booklet notes, Peter Avis points out that this was written for the organist Karl Straube and part of Reger’s game-plan was “trying to write works which would defeat even Straube’s virtuosity”. That’s never a good indicator of accessible music to the outsider, and there are times when Reger’s determination to make the music unplayable also renders it virtually unlistenable as well. But again, it is rescued here both by Sayer’s great virtuosity and Hinitt’s fresh-faced recording; it all comes up smelling of roses (an apt metaphor given Reger’s famous comment about music criticism) and while, again, the performance does not always render the music accessible, the joy of listening to such outstanding organ playing is pleasure enough.

Reubke’s mighty Sonata, with its theme of vengeance and Old Testament violence, is never the easiest of the music to sit through, even if it has become one of the standard showpieces of the repertoire. Here is a performance as good as almost any of record, and a great deal better than many. The first movement has a rich, expansive quality about it which helps shed light on even the music’s darkest recesses and brings into sharpest focus the great climaxes crowned as they are by the instrument’s magnificent Tuba. The second movement exudes an atmosphere of introspection and prayerfulness which never quite tips over into aimlessness and also gives a tantalising glimpse of the instrument’s string stops. Only in the serious Fugue with which the final movement begins do we lose some clarity of detail with the running figures swallowed up by the weighty organ sound and the whole thing often giving off the impression of trying to dance in a river estuary at low tide. But as the movement builds towards its massive climax, great swathes of organ tone roll in like huge Atlantic waves, and the effect is almost overwhelming. It ends with an enormous acclamation of power, the tuba triumphantly breasting the rushing tide of organ tone.

Marc Rochester



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