Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1845)
Six Organ Sonatas, Op.65
Benjamin Righetti (organ)
rec. Cathedral of St Nicolas, Fribourg, Switzerland, October 2015 CLAVES 50-1615 [75:53]
Mendelssohn’s six organ sonatas plug a big hole in the repertory of major organ works by significant figures of the 19th century. Between Bach and Messiaen, organ music was largely the preserve of organist-composers whose output rarely ventured successfully away from the organ or church. We look in vain for worthy works for the instrument from the likes of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner and Mahler. The result of this has been a sense of detachment, with organists enjoying a repertory by composers unknown to the outside world, and the outside world’s “great” composers alien names in the organ loft. So the importance of these six Mendelssohn works in bridging the divide between the wider musical world and the closed world of organists cannot be over-stated.
Yet the Mendelssohn Sonatas are dangerously uneven works. In places there are touches of pure genius – the opening variations culminating in the spectacular toccata of the Sixth Sonata, the upright, declamatory gestures which open the Second Sonata, the sensuously mellifluous Song without Words which forms the third movement of the Fourth Sonata, and of course the enchanting andante con moto of the Fifth. Against these are moments of almost embarrassing weakness – the naļve adagio from the First Sonata, the sickly little andante tranquillo of the Third and the dreary Fugue from the Sixth – which reveal the kind of inventive vacuum which afflicted so much of Mendelssohn’s later music. As a result of this in-built unevenness, the six Sonatas have not fared particularly well on disc, and I am hard pressed to come up with an unreserved recommendation for a disc which presents all six.
I certainly do not recommend this one from Benjamin Righetti. I have no qualms about his playing, which is fluent, assured and at times perceptively stylish. His impressively articulate finger work (gloriously displayed in the fluttering semiquavers of the opening movement of the Fourth) his agile footwork (somewhat hampered in the famous passage from the Fifth Sonata by clunking action noise) and his sensible choice of tempi (nicely measured to avoid sentimentality in the andante religioso of the Fourth) all point to player who has this music firmly under his technical control.
The big issue – indeed an obscenely gargantuan one – is the choice of organ, which is about as hideously inappropriate for this music as you could get. Superficially, it would seem to make sense to play music by an early 19th century German composer on an early 19th century Swiss instrument. But Mendelssohn wrote these Sonatas for the English market, at the behest of the London publisher Novello who originally requested a set of Voluntaries in the English style. They were designed and intended for the English organ as it was in the early 19th century – solid, muddy and smoothly blended to the point of blandness – and while great music should be able to transcend the national limitations of an instrument, this is neither great music nor is it able to negotiate the huge leap of faith needed to make this warm 19th century English music sound anything other than nonsensical on an organ voiced very much in the French style and tuned to a temperament which jars at almost every point.
Silvery Montres and sweet Flūtes save the day in places, not least in the theme and first two variations of the Sixth Sonata, but the reeds are so harsh and the upper work so jangling that too much of the music sounds more fairground than church; steam organs at fairs make a sound not dissimilar to what we hear in the finale of the First Sonata, and schoolboys will surely laugh at the pedal fart at 3:30. At times Righetti decides, wisely, that the best choice is to ignore registration indications, and by playing most of the Fourth Sonata’s finale on subdued flues, he gets away with it (although he spoils it with a grating reed for the final bars), but I am afraid that too often Mendelssohn’s music and Righetti’s playing are so badly mauled by the horrid sound of the organ that I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else.
The booklet does not bother to tell us anything at all about the music and offers only the most skeletal details of this 1834 Aloys Mooser organ. Instead it provides Benjamin Righetti with the space to delve into some psychological issues on the practice of recording on the organ. He concludes this meandering philosophical monologue by suggesting that this CD “should also lead you to think, to question”. I have one burning question: What on earth prompted you to record this music on such a hideously inappropriate instrument?” I’d love to know the answer to that.