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Friedrich KUHMSTEDT (1809-1858)
Fantasie (ein Concertstück), Op. 47 [13:14]
Grosse Sonate in G, Op. 49 [23:00]
Jan Albert van EYKEN (1823-1868)
Organ Sonata No. 2, Op. 15 [15:29]
Julius REUBKE (1834-1858)
Sonata on the 94th Psalm [27:04]
Halgeir Schiager (organ)
rec. Sofienberg Church, Oslo, Norway. 23-25 April 2019

Bucking the trend of some recent releases, this one does not have a title to help bring cohesiveness to a programme of music by different composers, two of whom will be almost universally unknown to modern-day listeners. Lawo could have thought along the lines of “Symphonic Organ Music of the 19th century”, which would have been appropriate if very vague, but beyond the fact that all three composers lived their entire creative lives in the middle years of the 19th century, the one thing they had in common was that all died before they had reached the age of 50.

In the case of Julius Reubke, who died at the age of 24, we can say that his early death appears to have robbed the world of a significant creative talent. Unfortunately that statement is based really on just one work; Reubke is the epitome of a One Work Composer known universally for his Sonata on the 94th Psalm. There is also a Piano Sonata, which has been recorded several times – although usually on the back of the organ work – while in one of his Organ Books for students and amateurs, C H Trevor included a half-baked Trio in E flat which Reubke wrote in his teens before receiving formal compositional training from the arch-conservative theorist A B Marx (the man who codified Sonata Form). A much more important and powerful influence over Reubke was Liszt, and the Sonata on the 94th Psalm is full of Lisztian rhetoric and drama. It has been recorded countless times; a quick look over currently available commercial recordings indicates 49, but dozens more have fallen out of circulation, including my personal favourite, recorded by Brian Runnett at Norwich Cathedral in 1967, on the long-defunct Cathedral label. The dizzying array of organists who have tackled the work on disc and the panoply of fabulous instruments that have been put through their paces with it, means that to single out a single version as the best is invidious (my preferences among the extant versions in the catalogue are Thomas Trotter at Ingolstadt Minster and Simon Preston at Westminster Abbey). Sadly, Halgeir Schiager on the organ of the Sofienberg Church in Oslo, will not be joining them.

Schiager is a precise and clean player, but really too introspective and careful to give the drama of Reubke’s dark and vengeful work (the 94th Psalm opens with the words “O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth”) full rein. Indeed, the precision of his playing and the care with which he handles registration effectively stifles any sense of thrill in the work. Organists probably need to be more willing to live dangerously, and that sense of safe domesticity is only reinforced by an organ which produces a strangely dead sound. The instrument itself dates only from 2014, but the brief given to the organ building firm of Hermann Eule was to create something in the German Romantic style, and they certainly seem to have succeeded admirably in this. Its darker hues are well focused, but with few of its 45 speaking stops moving beyond the 16-8-4 foot range, it lacks the brightness or sparkle needed to alleviate the gloom which pervades so much of Reubke’s monumental work. It is an authentic sound, of that there can be little argument, but to 21st century ears, the Reubke Sonata needs a little more flashiness to retain its appeal over its near half-hour duration.

Friedrich Karl Kühmstedt died a few weeks after his 48th birthday, and also came under the influence of Liszt. He most certainly was not a One Work Composer; his output spans opera, orchestral, organ and various pedagogic works, intended, as he wrote, to encourage “the stirrings of the spirit to arouse corresponding feelings through sounds running a close second”. But for all their worthy aims, only a tiny handful of organ pieces have appeared on CD; including Schiager himself performing the Concertstück über der Zauberflöte on an earlier Lawo disc, and John Stiller including a chorale prelude on Herzlich tut mich verlangen on the Australian Move label. On the strength of the two pieces included here, I am disinclined to delve further into the output of this forgotten German composer. Academically sound and worthy as it is, I do not find the dreary Grosse Sonate holds my interest, even given its relatively modest proportions, while the Fantasie seems quite devoid of interest and at times almost naively predictable. But both pieces find a worthy champion in Schiager, whose musical instincts seem well in tune with those of Kühmstedt.

That leaves us with the Dutchman Jan Albert van Eyken, who died at the age of 45. He rarely gets a mention in music textbooks, and when he does it is usually to point out that he was not as well-known as his brother Gerrit. However he was, as Schiager points out in his booklet notes, a highly active concert organist (one contemporary described him as “an outstanding representative of modern organ playing”), and his output, mostly for the organ, included several substantial concert works. His entry in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary suggests that his organ works, which included “150 chorales with introductions, 25 preludes, a toccata and fugue on B-A-C-H, 3 sonatas, variations, transcriptions, etc., are well and favourably known”. If that is the case, nobody has told the record companies, and the only work to have been previously recorded is the Toccata & Fugue on BACH. The second of his three Organ Sonatas is very strongly flavoured by one of his teachers, Mendelssohn (with whom Van Eyken studied at the Leipzig Conservatory), and the central movement is a rather charming Adagio which, while it lacks the melodic insouciance of Mendelssohn, is nevertheless a welcome moment of romantic delicacy in a programme which, for the most part, is dominated by worthy 19th century weightiness.

Marc Rochester

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