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GRAMOPHONE (03/2022)
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Reviewer: Malcolm Riley

Having spent 13 years as Organist and Assistant Director of Music at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, Simon Johnson took up the post of Master of Music at Westminster Cathedral in September 2021. Earlier in the year, by way of a farewell, he spent five days recording this groundbreaking double album of organ music by a septet of Teutonic masters, spanning approximately 190 years. With exemplary multichannel engineering, meticulously prepared playing and informative and helpful notes from David Gammie and Johnson himself, the listener is quickly drawn into a sonic and musical feast.

It is fascinating to hear how each composer has responded to the B-A-C-H motif, starting with JSB himself. This is the first recording of Lionel Rogg’s new completion (2020) of the unfinished fugue from Die Kunst der Fuge, which supersedes one he made in 1968 for his own recording. Another musicological triumph comes from the pen of the Swiss organist Rudolf Lutz, who has expanded a single page written by Mendelssohn, comprising 58 bars based on the passion chorale O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden, into a three-movement Sonata. Despite plenty of strong Mendelssohnian fingerprints, it pales somewhat when compared with Schumann’s solidly satisfying Six Fugues, Op 60. These really are masterpieces, composed at the peak of his inventiveness, full of verve and variety, sounding fresh and elegant. More organists should explore them.

Liszt’s old warhorse comes off splendidly, swirling demonically in the cavernous acoustic, as does Reger’s epic Fantasy and Fugue, Op 46, written at white heat in a single week in February 1900. Johnson revels in its extremes, particularly of dynamics. Even more extraordinary is Karg-Elert’s final (and, to some, most important) work, the Passacaglia and Fugue, Op 150. Composed in 1932 and dedicated to Henry Willis, this (at times) scatterbrained effusion pushes player, instrument, tonality and contrapuntal juggling to their respective limits. Despite giving the score such a high-octane reading, Johnson’s technical control and sense of shape and projection are reassuringly dependable. By way of a complete contrast comes the blessed peace of Brahms’s Fugue in A flat minor, a love offering to Clara Schumann. Its floating lines wander gently along Wren’s nave, melting into the stonework.

An outstandingly good release and a perfect combination of repertory, player and organ.

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