GMCD 7249 – Organ Sonatas by Mendelssohn
Reg Elson on the Viscount Prestige Organ
American Record Guide November/December 03
Two principal 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 Mendelssohn sonatas?
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).
Music Web Friday September 05 03
The first 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.
You may well ask how it is that Mendelssohn’s great, indeed sometimes massive organ sonatas find themselves on this instrument and what it is like.
Guild 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.
The organ 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.
With the 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.
So what does it sound like and is it effective in this repertoire?
If 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 musicians.
The louder 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’.
Written in 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.
If you don’t mind the organ and if the music sounds interesting to you then you will enjoy these performances.
The Organ May 03
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 listener’s taste.
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
This 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.
After 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.
Not 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.
The 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.
I 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.
Does 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.
The 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.
The 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.
It 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.