Felix Mendelssohn, in addition to being one of the most respected composers, conductors, and one of the greatest pianists of his day, was also one of the finest organists and improvisers of his age. At least on two occasions he produced large-scale collections for the instrument: the Three Preludes and Fugues, op. 37, and the
Six Organ Sonatas, op. 65. The sonatas come from the last decade of his life, but rather than being a grand forward-looking statement, they are a synthesis of his lifelong interest in Baroque forms and textures (Bach in particular here) and his own personal style, a fusion that can be seen as early as the youthful Characteristic Pieces, op. 7.
As with many organ recitals, the overall success of a performance is dependent on a variety of factors. The mechanical ability of the organist and his or her personal taste in registration are both important keys. (Mendelssohn himself states that “much depends in these sonatas on the right choice of the stops. … I have given only a general indication of the kind of effect intended to be produced, without giving a precise list of the
particular stops to be used.”) Another of the important factors is the instrument that is chosen for the recording and the acoustic of the recording space itself. These last two facets do not always come together fruitfully.
Oftentimes, even when an attractive-sounding organ is chosen, the space is less than ideal. Other times, the reverse can be said. Happily, when both of these aspects, along with a talented organist, come together, there is the possibility of a great recording, as is the case here. Jonathan Dimmock, who has held posts everywhere from Westminster Abbey in London to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, chooses the beautiful-sounding 1787 Holzhey organ in the Kloster Weißenau in Ravensburg, Germany, an organ which, according to him, is virtually unknown. And, if that is true, it is a pity.
The organ, while being on the smaller side, has some very attractive features; Dimmock so properly describes its sound as “strong, without being strident, warm, without being muddy, clear, without being self-consciously bright.” These all take place in a stunning acoustical setting. Dimmock, throughout, chooses excellently balanced and nuanced registrations that characterize these sonatas well, from the aggressive opening of the First Sonata to the calm chorale of the Sixth Sonata’s theme. His ease of the difficult pedal passages, along with his free, almost improvisatory way, does much to bring life to these compositions, which in some hands sounds simply mundane.
Though, like many composers, Mendelssohn is remembered for only a handful of works, these lesser-known sonatas provide a well-balanced view of his freedom in formal structures (sonatas that, rather than using sonataallegro structures, are built more like multimovement suites), elaborate counterpoint, melodic invention, and improvisational skills that were such a part of their composer. Dimmock’s performances are sensitive to many of the details that make this music special: he is lively at times, dramatic when necessary, and equally meditative when called for. Heartily recommended.
This article originally appeared in Issue 34:2 (Nov/Dec 2010) of Fanfare Magazine.