SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

MENDELSSOHN: Three Preludes and Fugues; Andante in D Major; Andante in G Minor; Sonata in C Minor No. 2; Andante in F Major; Sonata in B-flat Major No. 4 – Yuval Rabin, organ – MD&G

A lovely old instrument impressively captured in surround sound. The playing is accomplished, but slow tempi make this release less than fully competitive.

Published on March 23, 2013

MENDELSSOHN: Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37; Andante in D Major; Andante in G Minor; Sonata in C Minor, Op. 65 No. 2; Andante in F Major; Sonata in B-flat Major, Op. 65 No. 4 – Yuval Rabin, organ – Musikproduktion Dabringhaus und Grimm, multichannel SACD MD&G 914 1786-6 (2+2+2), 74:58 [Distr. by E1] ***:

Mendelssohn was blessed with so many talents, musical and otherwise, that it’s easy to forget he was also a well-regarded organ soloist, in demand both on the Continent and in England, where he scored some of his biggest successes as both performer and composer. As with other aspects of Mendelssohn’s musical education, he received instruction from a professional organist, August W. Bach, a distant relation of that other Bach. And, of course, Mendelssohn’s chief musical mentor, Carl Zelter, provided a firm grounding in the classics of the keyboard repertoire, which included the works of J. S. Bach, starting him on his lifelong course of championing Bach’s music. It’s no wonder that the influence of Bach on Mendelssohn’s original music for organ was strong—an influence that spread from Schumann and Liszt to Brahms, Rheinberger, and Reger.

The English connection is apparent in the appearance of Mendelssohn’s Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37, published in 1837 in both London (by Novello) and Leipzig and dedicated to Mendelssohn’s friend Thomas Attwood, organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Mendelssohn performed on more than one occasion as organ soloist. In the Preludes and Fugues, Mendelssohn puts his best foot forward; the first, in C minor, is the finest, with a wake-up-and-take notice toccata-like opening and a fugue that is striding, declamatory, anything but dry and dusty. By contrast, the second of the series is gentle and reflective, giving vent to the kind of inwardness that was a hallmark of the Romantic era rather than the Baroque. Along with Mendelssohn’s up-to-date, early Romantic harmonic language, the Preludes and Fugues asserted themselves as new wine in tried-and-true (not to say old) skins.

I may be talking through my hat, as they used to say (when people actually wore hats), but it seems to me that the Preludes and Fugues bear the same relationship to Mendelssohn’s most important organ pieces, the six Sonatas, that Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul (1836) bears to the later and much more compelling Elijah. In St. Paul, Mendelssohn still doesn’t seem to have figured out quite how to bring the Baroque tradition of oratorio and the influence of Bach’s Passion settings successfully into the Romantic era. Some of the writing, especially the use of the chorale settings, seems especially stiff and self-conscious, whereas the melding of the oratorio tradition with Mendelssohn’s near-operatic flair for musical storytelling makes for a more satisfyingly holistic experience in Elijah, despite its flaws. So it seems to me with the Organ Sonatas. Written to fulfill a commission for a set of organ “voluntaries” by the English publishing house of Coventry and Hollier, the Sonatas aren’t really sonatas in the classically accepted sense of the word. Instead, they’re suites of pieces along the lines of the Baroque partita, which also applies to Bach’s own Organ Sonatas, BWV 525-530.

This plan gave the busy Mendelssohn the opportunity to recycle previous freestanding work as well as set a unique stamp on the music, which incorporates not only contrapuntal and imitative movements in the style of Bach’s canons, fugues, and trios, but also embraces movements that are the organ-music equivalent of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words. The best of the lot may be Sonata No. 4, which starts, again, with a confident toccata-like opening, closes with a brilliant prelude and fugue, these movements bookending two contrasting songs without words, the first hymn-like, the second a sort of lullaby. Certainly Mendelssohn’s fusion of the Baroque and Romantic traditions wasn’t the last word but instead set the stage for all subsequent obsequies to Bach in the Romantic era.

Of the other Mendelssohn works on this program, the Andante in D and the Andante in F are products of the same year as the Sonatas and could be considered studies for the same. I’m far more partial to the one in F major, a charming little character piece, than to the one in D major, a series of free variations on a hymn-like tune. The whole thing has that air of strained piety that was so popular with Mendelssohn’s Victorian audiences—and which Wagner later scoffed at, to the great damage of Mendelssohn’s posthumous reputation.

Instead of another sonata or some of Mendelssohn’s other freestanding compositions, organist Yuval Rubin chooses to end his recital with his own homage to Mendelssohn in the form of an improvisatory chorale, variations, and fugue based on the Sabbath song Yedid Nefesh (“Dearest Friend”), weaving a few of Mendelssohn’s own themes into the mix. Some listeners may object, but Rubin’s gesture is both tasteful and expert and tends, for me, to personalize his recital further.

One other feature of the recital that may prove more controversial is the tempi Rubin chooses. He plays most of the works more slowly, some substantially more slowly, than just about any other organist whose timings I’ve been able to compare with his. That’s true, with the exception of the Sonata No. 2, of all the selections on the album I used for direct comparison, the now-venerable Hyperion Dyad with John Scott playing the Organ at St. Paul’s in London. For some strange reason, I’m more aware of Rubin’s draggy tempi when listening over headphones—maybe because MDG’s 2+2+2 is so impressive when heard through a good surround-sound system. Perhaps Rubin’s tempi are chosen in deference to the mechanical action of his chosen instrument, the Braun/Mathis Organ of St. Marzellus in Gersau, Switzerland. It’s a lovely sounding old instrument, dating to 1813 and lovingly restored to its former glory as late as 2012. On the other hand, John Scott plays a big, high-Romantic five-manual organ installed about thirty years after Mendelssohn would have last tickled the ivories at St. Paul’s. But to my ears, Scott uses tasteful registration that still makes Mendelssohn sound like Mendelssohn and not Rheinberger.

At any rate, despite the beauty of Rubin’s instrument and his obvious respect for the music, I prefer Scott’s crisper tempi and more forthright approach. So while Rubin’s recital features an attractive selection of Mendelssohn’s works for organ artfully played on an organ of the composer’s own day, you’ll want to turn elsewhere for the full picture.

—Lee Passarella

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