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Recordings of the Mendelssohn sonatas pass over my desk regularly, so it’s good to be able to report on a beautifully recorded and presented disc which, in several aspects, is unusual and eye-opening. Hans Davidsson has gone to great lengths to shine new light both on the programmatic aspects of these pieces (and their inter-relationships) and on various performance practice aspects that arguably deserve re-evaluation. His extensive booklet essay deals almost exclusively with the former, citing various contemporary receptions and perceptions of the works’ poetic nature (including reviews by August Ritter and others) as well as investigating the spiritual implications of the choice of chorales. The performance practice elements, however, remain undiscussed and in at least three key aspects are noteworthy enough to require consultation of Davidsson’s extended essay on the subject, published in the University of Rochester Press tome Mendelssohn, the Organ, and the Music of the Past: Constructing Historical Legacies (2015). Only when heard in conjunction with this essay does this recording begin to make sense.

The first noteworthy aspect is that of organ choice. The Gammalkil organ (II/28) is one of the best-preserved historic instruments in Sweden, built by Pehr Schiörlin in 1806 and surely one of the most individualistic organs of its time. Davidsson argues convincingly that the 18th-century central German organ, with its variety of 8ftstops (and varied speech characteristics) and tierce mixtures was Mendelssohn’s primary organ point of reference, and from this angle the choice of the Gammalkil organ is justifiable. The splendidly colourful and engaging sound in the dry-ish room provides a compelling partner for Mendelssohn’s music, although the lively wind (four wedge bellows) suffers some discomfort, for example when the pedal is especially active. This aspect, uniquely, perhaps works against Davidsson’s choice in as much as Mendelssohn complimented the absence of ‘shake’ in the sound of the organ at the Stadtkirche in Weimar in a letter of 1830.

The second aspect is that of registration, and especially the changing of registrations and manuals during movements at places not marked in the published score. This is especially noteworthy in the final movement of the Fifth Sonata, for example. Although hardly conclusive, Davidsson convincingly cites first-hand accounts (by Mounsey, Emil Naumann and others) of Mendelssohn’s manipulation of registration, realisation of crescendos and diminuendos, and employment of registrants. In the case of the Fifth Sonata, he even cites Mendelssohn’s annotations in his own manuscript as justification for the many manual changes employed.

The most alarming aspect of Davidsson’s playing, however, and the one that will separate the crowd more than any other, is his application of agogics. There are times when the very gestural approach to the music and the inherent flexibility of pulse seems to open new doors, for example in the First Sonata recitative (even more so in the context of the ‘darkness to light’ narrative attached to the sonata by August Ritter). Here and elsewhere many listeners will baulk but, again, reference to Davidsson’s larger article is essential. In it he cites first-hand descriptions by Clara Schumann of Mendelssohn’s playing, the art of tempo modification as described by Czerny, Berlioz’s description of a conversation with Mendelssohn on the futility of the metronome, as well as aspects of tempo, harmonic pulse and character designation. He concludes, ‘In fact, a combination of a rather fast reference pulse and flexible metre renders a compelling balance between energy and expressivity, and evokes an attractive and poetic effect.’ Listeners will come to their own conclusions, but it is perhaps a shame that the rationale behind the most obviously unusual aspects of the playing style heard on this disc is not elucidated in the booklet, and that those listeners will have to go to similar lengths to find the answers. As such, Davidsson’s fascinating and highly informed approach on this recording leaves itself open to far more glib dismissal than warrants his very considerable stature as a highly influential musicologist/ organist.

CHRIS BRAGG Read the full review on Agora Classica

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