July 30, 2009


Mendelssohn: Complete Organ Sonatas. William Whitehead, organ. Chandos. $18.99.

Rosetti: Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra, Murray C61; Concertos for Horn and Orchestra, Murray C50 and C48; Andante from Concerto for Two Horns and Orchestra, Murray C55Q. Klaus Wallendorf and Sarah Willis, horns; Kurpfรคlzisches Kammerorchester conducted by Johannes Moesus. CPO. $16.99.

Brahms: Clarinet Quintet; Piano Quintet; Sonatas Nos. 1 and 2 for Clarinet and Piano. Ralph Manno, clarinet; Alfredo Perl, piano; Michaela Paetsch Neftel and Rahel Cunz, violins; Hartmut Rohde, viola; Guido Schiefen, cello. Oehms. $16.99 (2 CDs).

     The largest wind instrument of all is the largest instrument, period: the organ, which is so intertwined with its setting that it is in a sense the size of a building – often a very large church or cathedral. Mendelssohn’s adroit use of wind instruments is well known, but the organ is not one with which he is usually associated. And that is too bad, as the excellent new recording of his organ sonatas by William Whitehead shows. These six works are the most substantial for the organ written between Bach’s time and Liszt’s – and that is a fair statement even though Mozart, among others, wrote for this instrument. Mendelssohn was himself a fine organist, and an English publisher therefore commissioned him to write six organ “voluntaries” – which grew in the composition into full-fledged sonatas. Mendelssohn played Bach’s organ works and also liked to improvise, and these sonatas clearly show a mixture of styles, from the contrapuntal to that of sacred songs and choral pieces. Despite the organ’s longtime identification with the church, the sonatas are mostly secular, although the first movements of No. 1 (in F minor), No. 3 (in A) and No. 6 (in D minor) incorporate church melodies. Bach’s influence is strong in No. 1 as well as No. 2 (in C minor) and No. 4 (in B-flat), but No. 2 also shows a strong Handelian orientation. And No. 5 (in D), as well as some of the other sonatas, also includes self-borrowing, notably from Elijah. These are not works in a single style but ones in which Mendelssohn adopted and adapted varying approaches to create sonatas that looked to the past while also incorporating the composer’s own techniques and preferences. They are not often heard, certainly not in a complete cycle, but they should be: individually and as a group, they are fascinating, and quite unlike other organ music of the Romantic era.

     Antonio Rosetti predates Mendelssohn: he was a contemporary of Mozart and was in his time ranked both with Mozart and with Haydn. Like Mendelssohn some years later, Rosetti extended the reach of wind instruments and gave them prominence even beyond what Mozart had brought to them. Rosetti wrote 16 concertos for single horn and seven for two horns, and they are difficult pieces to play on today’s valve horns – which means they required supreme virtuosity on the natural horn of Rosetti’s time. The three complete concertos on CPO’s new CD are fine samples of Rosetti’s sensitivity to the instrument, with C61 in F offering deeper emotion than is usually found in 18th-century wind concertos. C50 in E is distinguished by an especially unusual twist for the horn at the end, and C48 in E-flat by the particularly high writing. Also on the CD is an E-flat movement of questionable authorship (hence the “Q” in C55Q), possibly by Rosetti but also possibly by Michael Haydn. This is a pleasant romance that emphasizes cooperation rather than competition between the soloists. Both the players, Klaus Wallendorf and Sarah Willis, bring warmth as well as virtuosity to these charming, neglected works.

     Brahms’ wind pieces – in particular those for clarinet that he wrote late in life – are anything but neglected, but there is always room for another well-played version of them, and the two-CD Oehms set featuring Ralph Manno and Alfredo Perl is not only beautifully played but also a bargain. Manno and Perl are especially happily paired in the two Clarinet Sonatas, with Manno’s expressiveness making a strong case for playing these works on clarinet rather than in their alternative instrumentation for piano and viola. Manno’s expressiveness in much of the first sonata is quite wonderful, standing in strong contrast to the liveliness of the work’s finale. In the second sonata, in which clarinet and piano function more as equal partners, Manno and Perl throw the themes and accompaniments back and forth with ease and grace, producing a glowing interpretation. The Clarinet Quintet is also very fine, its ebb and flow sometimes gentle, sometimes impassioned, and its overall impression being one of warmth and tenderness. In contrast to these three late works, the earlier Piano Quintet fits somewhat uneasily into this set, not because of any deficiency in the playing – it sounds quite wonderful – but simply because it is so different in tone. Originally conceived as a string quintet, the work has in its finished version more brightness than is often found in Brahms, and a well-thought-out balance between the piano and the strings. The performers meld with apparently effortless grace, with the impressive ensemble playing contrasting pleasantly with the highlights that Brahms offers from time to time to individual instruments, notably the piano. These CDs are reissues – the quintets date to 1995, the sonatas to 1992 – but that takes nothing away from their quality. Overall, this is a lovely recording of lovely music, both with winds and without.

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