Mendelssohn: Organ Sonatas

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COMPOSERS: Mendelssohn
LABELS: Chandos
WORKS: Organ Sonatas
PERFORMER: William Whitehead (organ)
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 10532

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William Whitehead’s account of Mendelssohn’s complete organ sonatas offers a welcome and fascinating contribution to the composer’s 200th birthday celebrations. The English publishers, Coventry & Hollier, for whom Mendelssohn had edited Bach’s chorales and preludes, capitalised on the composer’s British celebrity by commissioning six ‘voluntaries’.

They ended up with a set of sonatas, the true significance of which they were certainly unaware, not least because they were devoured by subscribing cathedral organists; the music also went on to prompt Schumann to write his BACH fugues and Rheinberger to embark on a long career of sonata-writing. 

Whitehead explains how Mendelssohn’s virtuoso talents as an organist exposed the English organ’s historic deficiencies in the pedal department: the sonatas – suffused with Baroque chorale-based structures and Bachian counterpoint – helped drive builders such as Hill and Lincoln to develop German-style full pedal boards, and in doing so, gifted to them a benchmark of serious organ literature.

Buckingham Palace Ballroom’s Lincoln organ was built in 1818 for the Prince Regent’s Brighton Pavilion; organ-playing Prince Albert moved it to Kensington Palace, then, in the 1850s, to its present location, where it was fully restored, in 2002, by William Drake. It proves an ideal instrument to serve Whitehead’s thesis: its ‘small but beautiful’, three-manual, 28-stop specification boasts only one pedal stop.

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Whitehead need not apologise for the apparent perversity of trying to recreate the frustrating performing conditions Mendelssohn would have found on his British tours: drawing on the Bodleian’s ‘Deneke’ manuscript and the 1845 published editions, his immaculately articulated playing and musical imagination draws sounds, and an interpretation, which we may confidently imagine to be as authentic as it comes. Graeme Kay