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Mendelssohn: The Six Sonatas / James Lancelot

Mendelssohn / Lancelot
Release Date: 11/13/2012 
Label:  Priory Records   Catalog #: 1071   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  James Lancelot
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

MENDELSSOHN Six Organ Sonatas, Op. 65 James Lancelot (org) PRIORY 1071 (66: 00)

This utterly fascinating music represents an odd entry in the catalog of works by Mendelssohn. Commissioned by the English music publisher Coventry & Hollier, these op. 65 organ sonatas were also published in Leipzig by Beethoven’s old publisher, Breitkopf & Härtel. As Relf Clark points out in his excellent liner notes, these works are not “sonatas” in the sense of piano sonatas but, Read more rather, organ voluntaries strung together to form four- or five-movement suites. They also reflect Mendelssohn’s lifelong study of and passion for the music of J.S. Bach; when I put the CD on, a close friend of mine asked me if these were Bach organ works. They sound like it, not only in the melodic construction and use of counterpoint, but even in the use of Lutheran themes in some of the movements. They thus bear a resemblance to Mendelssohn’s other music only in his insistence on strict tonal principals—they even lack the kind of harmonic exploration one hears in late Beethoven, which Mendelssohn never really liked. Yet, as I say, it is excellent music, cogently developed and never, ever lacking in imagination or interest. As one listener on Amazon.com put it, “Mendelssohn was seemingly unable to write a poor piece of music, and these works are no exception.”

James Lancelot plays here on the organ of Durham Cathedral, where he is organist and master of choristers. It’s a splendidly full-bodied instrument, and I enjoyed all of his particular choices of stops and registration (for once, not specified in the booklet, though they give the full specs of the organ—including four stops grouped together as the “Bombarde Division.” “Look out below…here comes a bombardment of Mendelssohn!”). All kidding aside, though, Lancelot is a very fine organist, and the recorded sound, as usual for the Priory label, is simply terrific.

Aside from incomplete recordings of these sonatas, such as by the famed Marie-Claire Alain who gives us three of them on Erato/Warner Classics, there are 16 other complete recordings of the op. 65, by Stefan Johannes Bleicher, Michael Chapuis, Jonathan Dimmock, Hans Fagius, James Hammann, Rudolf Heinemann, Kay Johanssen, Susan Landale, Thomas Murray, Ja Kyung Oh, Margaret Phillips (somewhat comically identified at ArkivMusic as “Margaret (organ) Phillips”), John Scott, Matthias Suess, Steven Tharp, Jos van der Kooy, and William Whitehead. Dimmock’s recording from 2010 on the Loft label (1112) was highly praised in these pages by Scott Noriega, but alas, it only appears to be available nowadays as an mp3 download from ArkivMusic (though the CD seems to be available from Amazon). Jerry Dubins recommended Susan Landale’s version on Calliope 9751. David Vernier of Classics Today recommends Johanssen (Carus 83167). Organ fanciers who bought their recordings at Amazon also praise Whitehead and Murray very highly. And you know what? All of them probably are very good, but so is Lancelot. Thus, without having heard any of the others, I would still recommend this recording as another very good one. The choice is yours.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Sonatas (6) for Organ, Op. 65 by Felix Mendelssohn
Performer:  James Lancelot (Organ)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1844-1845; Germany 

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