Almost exactly a month ago Brilliant Classics continued their mission of releasing complete collections with a three-CD set of the complete organ music composed by Felix Mendelssohn. In the context of the full catalog of Mendelssohn’s compositions, this is a modest offering; but Mendelssohn composed for the organ only sporadically between 1823 and 1831. That indicates that his earliest efforts came from his teenage years, a time that sometimes appears as if he was enthusiastically pursuing as many genres as he could, all at the same time. His last efforts, on the other hand, took place at the age of 21, meaning that the entire collection can be described as youthful effort (while recognizing that the youth in question was particularly prodigious).
Mendelssohn actually started playing the organ at the age of eleven. It is no surprise that Johann Sebastian Bach was one of his earliest influences. When one listens to his earliest efforts to make the step from performer to composer, it is not hard to identify at least some of the ways in which Mendelssohn turned to Bach’s compositions to provide models for his own work.
However, as Mendelssohn grew more mature, there is a good chance that he began to take a broader view of the many different sides that Bach-the-working-musician revealed through what was documented for publication. Indeed, Mendelssohn took these publications very seriously, having edited the first critical editions of Bach’s organ works for British publishers during his visits to Britain. In this capacity it is possible, if not likely, that Mendelssohn came to recognize that Bach was less interested in publication for the sake of his own immortality and more for the sake of sharing his pedagogical insights. As I have frequently observed, Bach saw pedagogy as the cultivation of two parallel skills, one in the technical proficiency of execution and the other in the inventive proficiency of improvisation.
In this context it is important to observe that Mendelssohn’s reputation as an organist was based not only on his skillful execution of the music of Bach (and other composers) but also on his talents as an improviser. Between Mendelssohn’s own maturing as a performer and the acquisition of his skills as an editor, one can appreciate that his later organ compositions may have taken Bach’s pedagogical technique as a primary motivating force. Indeed, when his Opus 65 (a set of six sonatas that would be his last works for organ) were published in London by Coventry and Hollier, the publishers released an advertisement (illustrated above) describing the publication as “Mendelssohn’s School of Organ-Playing.”
Nevertheless, it is uncertain how clearly Mendelssohn’s accomplishments may be appreciated through this (or, for that matter, any other) recording. Giulio Piovani certainly provides a capably disciplined account of all the compositions he performs. Nevertheless, even in the later works, there is very much a sense that Bach is overshadowing the entire corpus of Mendelssohn’s efforts, at least where the organ is concerned.
This contrasts sharply with recent recordings of the organ compositions by Max Reger, originally written at the other end of the nineteenth century. One is just as aware of Bach’s influence when one listens to Reger. However, one is just as aware that Reger is trying to outdo Bach’s inventiveness, even if it means going beyond the spontaneity of improvisation to far more intricate (not to mention convoluted) configurations of notation, whose origins in improvisation are likely to be highly doubtful.