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Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Chorale Prelude and Fugue on “O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid”, WoO7 [11:05]
Prelude and Fugue in A minor, WoO9 [6:46]
11 Chorale Preludes, Op.122 [40:02]
Prelude and Fugue in G minor, WoO10 [9:03]
Fugue in A flat minor, WoO8 [8:56]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Praeludium in C, WAB129 [2:47]
Andreas Etlinger (organ)
rec. 2017, St Florian Monastery, Upper Austria
TYXART TXA16084 [78:26]

This is a rare event; Brahms and Bruckner side-by-side on a CD of instrumental music. They may have been contemporaries who knew each other, but their music is so diametrically different that, outside some short choral motets, there seems no common ground between them. All the more remarkable, then, that they are brought together on, of all things, a disc of organ music. Bruckner was an organist, Brahms was not, yet both wrote just five pieces for the instrument (in the case of Bruckner there are several other organ pieces attributed to him the authenticity of which scholars seriously question). Here we have all Brahms’s organ works and – described as a “bonus track” – just one of Bruckner’s. But Bruckner gets posthumously compensated for this apparent inequality because Andreas Etlinger has recorded the entire programme on the organ of St Florian Monastery where Bruckner had been organist. For that reason, this is described as the “Bruckner” organ, despite the fact that the organ is not the one that he played – it has been considerably altered in successive rebuilds in 1951 and 1996. But let’s not allow these piffling details to dampen the celebrations of a final reconciliation on CD of these two musical arch-enemies.

Andreas Etlinger writes extensively in the booklet about his reasoning behind recording the complete Brahms organ music on an organ associated with Bruckner. It is interesting, but unnecessary, to justify this decision on historical and personal grounds, for the Brahms pieces work superbly on this instrument, even down to the rather muddy sound of the recording and the occasional clattering of action noise. Nobody has ever yet convinced me that the “early” Brahms organ works – the Fugue of 1864, the two Preludes and Fugues of 1856/7, and especially the stand-alone Chorale Prelude and Fugue on O Traurigkeit, o Herzeleid - are of any great musical interest beyond the fact that they are by Brahms and are highly imitative of Bach; they strike me as turgid, overlong and unimaginative. That view is probably my failing, but for those who share it, Etlinger does little to dispel it, and the “Bruckner” organ is not an instrument which will shed any great light on already rather dark music. That said, Etlinger shows a highly impressive technical facility in the virtuoso figurations of the G minor Prelude.

However, the 11 Chorale Preludes, are a very different kettle of fish. These are the culmination of Brahms’s compositional career, and continue in the same vein as the piano intermezzi which preceded them. Every one is a minor gem, and Etlinger makes the most of the pathos and introvert expressiveness in the music. As recorded performances go, this is a highly recommendable version, and the organ speaks with a kind of intimate warmth which serves them very well indeed. But as with almost all the other recordings of the 11 Chorale Preludes, Etlinger takes an organist’s approach, moving them along with the kind of rhythmic inflexibility which suits the mechanical nature of the instrument but is completely at variance with how a pianist would deal with such things. Only in the very final chorale prelude, O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, does he relax his grip enough to allow the music to flow naturally; it is very much the interpretative highlight of this disc.

Dating from 1884, the so-called “Perger Praeludium” by Bruckner may well be cast in C major, but by its third chord has delved into a morass of intensely dark chromaticism, which gives it a weightiness and substance far beyond its brief playing time. It oozes all the characteristics of Bruckner’s music which have divided opinion about him since even before Brahms made his disparaging remark that Brucker “is a poor, crazy creature, whom the priests of St. Florian have on their conscience”. It is hardly anything more than a slowly moving improvisation, which Etlinger does nothing to alleviate through a very heavy registration and a slow, glutinous sense of forward momentum.

Etlinger’s playing throughout is solid and secure, maintaining an unsmiling visage and a seriousness of purpose which is entirely appropriate for this music. His performances will win few converts to the cause of either Brahms or Bruckner, but for the stalwart disciples, the mere fact that he plays the pieces so well and with such a strong feeling of empathy will be enough to make this recording an important addition to the catalogue.

Marc Rochester

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