GMCD 7249 Mendelssohn Organ Sonatas
American Record Guide November/December 03
Sonatas, op 65
- Guild 7249 - 79 minutes
questions arise in considering this. First, is this electronic organ a
convincing vehicle for the performance of this important portion of the organ
repertory? Second, does this recording stand up well alongside others of the
The champions of electronic organs
are given to propagandizing about them, so I found it refreshing that Dr Elson
in his program notes quite frankly admits the limitations of the Viscount
Prestige while saying at the same time that it is the most rewarding electronic
he has played. Based on the evidence of this recording, I am not that
enthusiastic. Digital audio technology has improved the electronic organ almost
immeasurably in the last 15 or 20 years. Designers no longer need to devise
artificial means of generating an imitation organ tone when they can digitally
sample the sound of real organ pipes from the greatest organs in the world.
Producing an integrated Instrument is another matter. A few years ago, I
attended the dedication of a large Allen installation in Wilmington, Delaware.
That instrument sounded to me less like an organ than like a good recording of
an organ. There was a certain disproportion between the size and acoustic of the
room and the organ sound I was hearing - not that it was a small room.
Theoretically, that should not be an issue in a recording of an electronic
organ, but I fear that the tone of the Viscount Prestige Organ on this recording
is so far below the standard of the Allen that there is no chance of accepting
its sound as the equivalent of pipe organ tone. The principal chorus is thin and
top-heavy. Some of the reeds, strings, celestes, flutes, and other color stops
are very attractive; but occasionally there are sounds that are unlike any organ
pipe tone I have ever heard. On the whole, I am not persuaded.
Reginald Elson is an orthopedic
surgeon by profession. He had aspired to a career in keyboard performance, but a
finger injury prevented him from taking up a scholarship at the Royal Academy of
Music. In his biographical sketch, he mentions his close association (though not
formally as a pupil) with Peter Hurford and Francis Jackson, two of the finest
English organists of our time. While it is clear that Dr Elson is a devoted and
gifted amateur organist, his performances of the Mendelssohn sonatas do not meet
the standard of the best currently available. Although many of his tempos are
cautious and deliberate, these are not really clean performances, and in many
instances I miss the propulsion and flow that the music ought to have. In
contrast, I remain very fond of Ulrik Spang-Hanssen’s comprehensive traversal of
the Medelssohn organ works (Classico 193 –3CD). Those who prefer a more
neo-baroque approach to the sonatas might choose Janice Beck (Arkay 6103), while
listeners who crave a more romantic and sumptuous sound might prefer John Scott
at St Paul’s Cathedral (Hyperion 22029 – 2CD). GATENS
Music Web Friday September 05 03
Six Organ Sonatas (1844-45): No.1 in F minor; No.2 in C minor/major; No.3 in A
major; No.4 in Bb Major; No.5 in D major; No.6 in D minor.
Elson plays the Viscount Prestige organ at Woodsetts, Woodsetts
Rec. November 2002
GMCD 7249 [78.33]
question is what exactly is a Viscount Prestige organ? You might be forgiven if
at first you thought it some kind of kitchen utensil or domestic appliance, but
it is in fact an electronic organ which sits in the private dwelling of the
performer Reg Elson.
well ask how it is that Mendelssohn’s great, indeed sometimes massive organ
sonatas find themselves on this instrument and what it is like.
have, as ever, helped us by providing an essay written about the instrument by
Reg Elson with a useful résumé of each movement of each sonata and even more
usefully a complete organ specification. Impressive it is too. The recording
location is the clue, Woodsetts House, not a church.
is a 3-manual instrument with a simulated tracker action and drawstops! Reg goes
on to tell us that "the Viscount has been sitting happily in my home for the
last twelve months and is voiced using various samples from North German
organs". Perhaps it was for this reason that he chose Mendelssohn’s sonatas to
record when possibly baroque or earlier music might have been more suitable. The
advantage Reg tells us is that organ music can often be spoiled by the acoustic,
meaning that some musical detail can be lost. I know this for myself when my own
Organ Sonata was performed brilliantly at York Minster without the audience
‘hearing’ more than 50% of the piece.
Viscount "the pipework, the building and every rank recorded is stored in
digital form which retains the natural qualities of the pipe organ and its
environment". To see the picture on the back of the booklet you would think that
Reg Elson is sitting at any organ in a large church.
does it sound like and is it effective in this repertoire?
Mendelssohn was not now known as a great composer he would still have been
remembered for his rediscovery, of J.S. Bach. Mendelssohn’s fascination and
interest manifested itself in various areas. Sometimes it can be difficult to
distinguish between Mendelssohn’s and J.S.’s Motets, large-scale choral works
and fugues. The first sonata opens with a fugue as does the third; the sixth
culminates in one. What is interesting is that the fugal subjects and counter
subjects are always clear with this organ and the counterpoint never stodgy or
indistinct. Whilst the bass weight does not seem to be lost, the upper registers
on the ‘Great’ are not so impressive and they fail, to my ear, to penetrate with
requisite power. I must add however that contrary to many, I would not view
these sonatas as unduly heavy or weighty. None is particularly long. Number six
is just over sixteen minutes. Many movements, for example the third movement of
the fourth sonata, are nothing more or less than a song without words
accompanied by a gentle rolling pianistic figure. This organ helps to bring out
almost a chamber quality in this music where it is most appropriate.
The use of
chorales is another significant stylistic feature although sometimes, as in the
finale of the Sixth Sonata they end up being quite romantic; very much in the
language so influential and so beloved of hundreds of Victorian church
music is impressive; the lyrical music delightful. The chorale-like homophonic
movements like the second (and last) of the Second Sonata make the organ (and
I’m sorry if I upset anyone), sound as if it stuck up the corner of the local
crematorium. It is a sound I find almost ’naff’.
a very short period, these sonatas are not great Mendelssohn but there are some
very attractive ideas and they are a real pleasure to play. My favourite is the
brief three-movement fifth. The best is probably the sixth which happens to be
the longest. Reg Elson plays them with care, love and seems to me to judge the
tempi ideally with excellent choice of stops and colour.
don’t mind the organ and if the music sounds interesting to you then you will
enjoy these performances.
The Organ May 03
Reg Elson plays the Viscount Prestige Organ at
Woodsetts House, Woodsetts
GUILD GMCD 7249
Without doubt this is a
ground-breaking CD for a very well-established recording company to make, since
it features a retired orthopaedic surgeon playing his electronic organ in the
comfort of his own home. Don’t be fooled though! Reg Elson gives a fine account
of the six sonatas, and his Viscount Prestige Stands up pretty well to the
detailed tonal scrutiny that Mendelssohn's fine craftsmanship demands.
Not surprisingly the project began as an experiment that eventually encouraged
all involved to complete the recording of the whole cycle. The Viscount Prestige
is a large 3 manual instrument with a simulated tracker action and drawstops.
The instrument is voiced using various samples from North German organs.
Reg Elson's love of this
glorious music is reflected in his Sense of structure, thoughtful registration
and consistently neat, accurate playing. The North German voicing ensures
clarity both in the contrapuntal and tutti sections, and it really is lovely to
hear all the notes in the toccata style movements, which so often pass by in an
unsatisfying blur. However, I can guess that the Viscount sound wont be to every
The recording is
accompanied by an excellent booklet, and I really must commend Reg Elson's own
programme notes which are clear, concise and extremely readable for listeners
who are not organists in 'the know'- a most refreshing approach!
At seventy-two Reg Elson
leads a very full lie, and organ playing is but one of his interests. He has
certainly accomplished an exceptional achievement with this recording. I look
forward to hearing more from Woodsetts House in the future.
Musicweb Saturday June 07 03
Six organ sonatas, Op 65 (1845)
Organ Sonata #1 in f [17.24]
Organ Sonata #2 in c [10.56]
Organ Sonata #3 in A [9.47]
Organ Sonata #4 in Bb [13.50]
Organ Sonata #5 in D [9.49]
Organ Sonata #6 in d [16.25]
Elson, Viscount Prestige [electronic digital sampler sequencer] Organ
Recorded at Woodsetts House, November 2002
Notes in English, Deutsch
GMCD 7249 [72.26]
Op. 65 #’s 2, 3 & 6, Peter Hurford, organ Argo 414420-2
recording of the Mendelssohn Sonatas was made on an electronic organ. The
instrument capitalises on many of the enormous improvements which have in recent
years been made as a result of the development of computers. Also much
acoustical research has been stimulated by unsatisfactory experiences with
older, simpler such instruments, such as the once ubiquitous Hammond electric
organ. This ‘Viscount’ instrument has a real ‘front end,’ that is real organ
keyboard, drawstops, couplers, pedals, etc. These all terminate in electric
switches of course, but have been cleverly loaded with weights, springs, and
levers so they feel to the experienced player like the real thing.
many frustrating years of trying to perfect electronic tone generators,
electronic musical instruments now virtually all use actual digital recordings
of real acoustic instruments to produce the basic sound wave form. One digital
recording is made of each note of the scale throughout the range of the
instrument; these recordings, stored in the memory of a computer, are then
selected and played back in tempo either directly from a keyboard, or by means a
computer program. This program can be ‘written’ by a musician playing on a
keyboard and may include, besides pitch and timing, such things as how hard the
key is pressed down, as well as use of pedals, drawbars, etc. Also, computer
acoustical calculations can produce a reverberant environment of astounding
realism. This digital stream is then fed directly into the CD mastering lathe
without requiring the use of loudspeakers, microphones, or external mixers. The
result has naturally been a quantum leap forward in the ‘realism’ of the sound.
mentioned in the notes to this release is the universal use of this MIDI
(‘Musical Instrument Digital Interface’) computer system which allows the
digital recording of every aspect of a musical performance including attack and
release, key pressure (‘aftertouch’), key force (‘velocity’). This allows the
instrument to reproduce the performance exactly whenever desired with vastly
greater realism than was ever possible with the "piano roll" player pianos of
200 years ago. The obvious consequence is that after the recording is made, each
of these parameters can be individually edited, and the performance brought to a
virtually absolute level of perfection. Since Dr. Elson’s performance is almost
absolutely perfect, I suggest he may have made at least some use of MIDI editing
capability although he does not say so.
further consequence of this is that a person such as myself with some musical
sense but with virtually zero keyboard skills can produce startlingly brilliant
performances of virtuoso keyboard works just by using computer editing. I am
very proud of my Liszt Dante Sonata, for instance; also my Shostakovich
24th Prelude & Fugue. This in spite of the fact that I flunked piano
in the third year and never could actually play anything beyond the simplest of
the Purcell keyboard suites.
suggest that Dr. Elson has not gone nearly so far as I do. I suspect he actually
enjoys playing the works at the keyboard and has enough skill to produce at
least a creditable first version and that any use of MIDI editing capability is
only to clear up an occasional difficulty here and there. Keyboard artists say
in interviews that the ability to correct a wrong note here and there gives them
the freedom to play with more emotion and less worry, and that they produce much
better performances overall, not merely note perfect ones. If the editing were
not available, they would have to play more cautiously, and the many retakes
required to achieve note perfect recordings would result in fatigue and a more
timid approach, with less taking of risks. In other words Dr. Elson is probably
doing nothing more or less than virtually every other recording keyboard artist
today is doing.
this recording sound "natural?" Well, largely. It sounds like a small church
organ in a relatively dead acoustical environment. Dr. Elson may be feeling
tracker rods and levers and cogs, but they don’t make any sounds, and in a real
organ you can hear them. The "swell shutters" just turn the circuit gain up and
down; they don’t make any ‘frump’ sound, however quietly, and they don’t act
differentially on the harmonics of the sound the way real swell shutters do.
playing is almost flawless. These are extremely clear recordings and allow one
to hear every detail of the music; tempi and registrations and thoughtfully
chosen and the overall effect is very musical, but not very emotional, certainly
not exciting. Direct comparison with the Peter Hurford recording — particularly
appropriate since Dr. Elson is a friend of Dr. Hurford — reminds us that the
real organ can gasp and growl and shriek and makes funny noises now and then
whereas the Viscount retains its dignity.
price mentioned here, £13,000, for an organ that never needs tuning or
regulating; never drifts with the weather; is immune to bats, birds, and mice
building nests; is immune to the effects of small earthquakes, heavy trucks
driving by, and sonic booms; is always ready to play at the turn of a switch;
and only uses as much electricity as a small light bulb, will prove irresistible
to churches. Expect one to come to a galaxy near you very soon, and expect to
see real pipe organs quickly relegated to museums of musical history.
was actually nearly twenty years ago in Vancouver, Canada, that I saw the future
before me. I was in a large German restaurant being entertained by an oompah
band. Everybody was in authentic costume and the trumpeters were standing up
front blaring away, accompanied by the expected loud bass tuba — but wait a
minute, I couldn’t see any tuba! Then I saw a young fellow way in the back
playing the tuba part with two fingers on a Yamaha DX7 synthesiser. The sound
was perfectly realistic, and I was probably the only one who noticed. Today,
probably 75% of all popular and commercial music is synthesized, and you
probably haven’t noticed.
Page revised 22.12.03