MENDELSSOHN: Vol. 1 of Complete Works for Organ – Praludium; Allegro Moderato Maestoso; Theme and Variations; Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 6; Variations Serieuses – Martin Schmeding, organ – Ars Vol. 2 – Sonatas 4 & 5; other works – Martin Schmeding – Ars

by | Jan 28, 2011 | SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews | 0 comments

MENDELSSOHN: Gesamtwerk für Orgel, Vol. 1 (Complete Works for Organ) – Praludium; Allegro Moderato Maestoso; Theme and Variations; Sonatas Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 6 in f minor, c minor, A Major, & d minor; Variations Serieuses – Martin Schmeding, organ – Ars Produktion multichannel SACD ARS 38 046 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

MENDELSSOHN: (Complete Works for Organ) Vol. 2 – Three Praludien und Fugen Op. 37; Andante (Trio); Fughetta (Allegro Moderato); Allegro in B Major; Fuge (Lento); Sonata No. 5 in D Major; Allegro in d minor; Fugue in e minor; Sonata No. 4 in B Major – Martin Schmeding, organ – Ars Produktion multichannel SACD ARS 38 047 [Distr. by Qualiton] ****:

Unlike many other composers of works for the pipe organ, Mendelssohn was renowned in his lifetime as a performer on the organ, as well as on the piano. His virtuosity on the pedals was especially noted at the time, and is found in many of his organ compositions – which he began writing from the age of 11 to his death. Eric Werner wrote “next to Bach’s works, Mendelssohn’s Organ Sonatas belong to the required repertory of all organists.”

The Mendelssohn Organ Sonatas are all quite different from one another – each one using fresh ideas of form and effect. All are naturally contrapuntal – Mendelssohn made great use of counterpoint in his organ works as a tribute to his still greater predecessor Bach. All of them except No. 5 include a fully-developed fugue. The Sonatas Nos. 5 and 6 were considered by Robert Schumann the culmination of Mendelssohn’s organ works, and one of them is on each volume of this set. The composer also made extensive use of chorales – as did Bach. Though not used in the second and fourth sonatas, the chorale is used in the others and integrated into the overall fabric of the works. He also honored Bach in such early works as a Fantasy and Fugue based on Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, and an Ostinato Passacaglia in c (neither are included in this set).

This is not the light and bright Mendelssohn of the Midsummer Night’s Dream music, but a more serious, liturgical composer – a convert from Judaism to Christianity. He did groundbreaking work in the development of the style of organ music. In fact, his organ works can be considered the beginnings of the development of the French symphonic organ style which came later in the 19th century.  They are positioned between the church sonata style (with chorales included) and the concert hall which was to become the primary setting of the massive French symphonic organ works. Like the symphonic organ works, Mendelssohn’s pieces for organ reflected his renown as an improviser – on both piano and organ. The art of improvisation has long been an important part of pipe organ performance, and sections of these works show its influence.

The First Sonata is serious, stentorian in its message, and quite complex. The Second is a simpler work, but still skillfully composed. By the time he composed the Third Sonata Mendelssohn had already written two oratorios, and he used in this work a stretto fugue based on a chorale, “Out of the depths I cried onto Thee.” The four-movement structure of the Fourth Sonata gives it the most classical effect of all six.  He composed his own chorale tune for its initial movement – as well as for the Fifth Sonata, rather than using an existing chorale.  The conclusion of the Fifth ties in with its opening –  using the “chorale without words” again in a hymn-like form. Towards the end of his life Mendelssohn directed the Berlin Cathedral Choir. In his Sixth Sonata he used a simple homophonic setting of the first part of the chorale “Our Father who art in Heaven,” which might accompany congregational singing. One of the four following variations has a highly-ornamented bass line with very difficult pedal parts – not a customary practice after the time of Bach.

The other complete set of Mendelssohn’s organ music I had on hand was the Hyperion two-CD set by organist John Scott. I didn’t even get as far as comparing performance aspects, because its sonics were extremely opaque and muddled vs. the rich, clear and enveloping sonics of this ARS multichannel SACD set.  (Clearly either multichannel or binaural is the best way to record pipe organs.) The organ is a large Kuhn-Orgel instrument in the Alfried Krupp Hall of the Essen Philharmonic.  With 4502 pipes, it was just inaugurated in 2004.  The instrument and setting is perfect for these works, which are equally at home in the concert hall or the cathedral.

 — John Sunier

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