Mozart Organ Works LAWO LWC1257

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Mozart and the Organ
Anders Eidsten Dahl (organ), Arvid Engegår, Atle Sponberg (violin),
Embrik Snerte (bassoon).
rec. 2019, Margaretakyrkan, The Swedish Church, Oslo; 2022, Bragernes Church, Drammen, Norway.
LAWO Classics LWC1257 [75]

A hundred years ago Orlando A. Mansfield thought it necessary to open an article on Mozart’s ‘Epistle Sonatas’ (‘Mozart’s Organ Sonatas’, The Musical Quarterly, 8(4), 1922, p.566-594) in this way: “To many of our readers it may be somewhat of a surprise to find the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart associated with that of the king of instruments”. That sense of surprise has surely gone, but even now Philip Borg-Wheeler (reviewer of this parish) opens the booklet essay accompanying this attractive disc as follows: “Mozart’s seventeen Church Sonatas (or Epistle Sonatas) are among his most rarely performed works but, as so often happens, the reason for this neglect has nothing to do with musical quality”; he goes on to suggest that the neglect “is related to the difficulties in deciding how and where to programme such short pieces”. The Epistle Sonatas are not, it must be admitted, forgotten masterpieces. Most of them are, however, well-made pieces with at least something of the echt Mozart about them. No lover of Mozart should fail to make their acquaintance.

First, a note on terminology. These pieces have been referred to as ‘Church Sonatas’ and have also been called ‘Epistle Sonatas’ and ‘Organ Sonatas’. ‘Organ Sonatas’ is a misleading description; the organ is present in all of these sonatas, but in most of them it is used as a continuo instrument only. Of the sonatas recorded here the one significant exception to this is K. 336 in which the organ is sufficiently prominent as a soloist that one might almost be listening to a movement from a lost organ concerto by Mozart. The most precise description of these works is ‘Epistle Sonatas’. Mozart refers to this form by the term Sonata dell’ Epistola in a letter (of September 4, 1776) to Padre Martini. These sonatas were probably written for a specific purpose within the celebration of the Mass – for performance during the period in which the celebrant, after the reading of the Epistle, crossed from the south side of the choir to the north, to read the Gospel. Archbishop Colleredo had decreed that in his cathedral of Salzburg, Mass should never last more than 45 minutes, as Mozart explained in the letter to Padre Martini cited above: “a Mass with the whole Kyrie, the Gloria, the Credo, the Epistle Sonata, the Offertory or Motet, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei must not last longer than three quarters of an hour. This applies even to the most solemn mass said by the Archbishop himself” (Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 1938, I, p.386). The necessity for brevity must have been very clear to Mozart; of the fourteen Epistle Sonatas on the current disc, the longest lasts almost four and a half minutes, while the shortest is under two minutes long.

In The Faber Guide to Mozart (2005, p.258) Nicolas Kenyon describes the first three of the Epistle Sonatas, K.67-9, as “innocuous”. The adjective is surely too negative. I find myself more in sympathy with Stanley Sadie’s description of these sonatas as being “in an airily tuneful style, emphasising the lack of any sharp distinction in Mozart’s attitude to the sacred and secular” (The New Grove Mozart, London, Macmillan, 1982, p.53). K.67 in E flat is an attractive miniature, being only 44 bars long, but it contains more than a little expressive writing within its generally graceful music. The surviving manuscript contains no indication of tempo, but the elegant andante of this performance is surely fully appropriate. K.68 and 69 (written, like K.67, early in 1772 are, with equal aptness, played as brief allegros – each is around 60 bars in length – and are thoroughly engaging pieces which, save in scale, can be compared (not always to their disadvantage) with the allegros in Mozart’s early symphonies, even though their development sections are, of course, more abbreviated. Every one of these 14 sonatas has some pleasures to offer, whether that be the vivacity of K.244’s opening or the unexpected movement to the minor at the opening of the same sonata’s development, or the interplay between the two violins in K.328.

The ’minimalist’ instrumentation used in the present performances has made necessary the omission of three, in which trumpets and oboes are deployed, of the seventeen ‘Epistle Sonatas’ written by Mozart. However, I am sufficiently fond of the intimacy of chamber organ, two violins and bassoon as not to regret the absence of the three missing sonatas. It would serve little real purpose to comment on the other sonatas recorded here, since they are, in general terms, very similar in nature to those so far discussed. Readers wanting to know more of the structural and stylistic features of all these pieces might like to consult Robert S. Tangeman’s article ‘Mozart’s Seventeen Epistle Sonatas’ (Musical Quarterly, 32, 1946, 588-601). Those put off by the chamber-size instrumentation used here may prefer to listen to these sonatas – and thus hear the oboes and trumpets too – in either the 1989 recording by organist Ian Wilson with the King’s Consort, originally released on Hyperion and later reissued on Helios (CDH55314), or that of 2005 by organist Istvan Matyas and the Wiener Akademie (Capriccio SACD 71064).

I am, as the reader will have gathered, rather keen on the ‘Epistle Sonatas’, but I recognise that they will not be to everyone’s taste, especially with the instrumentation chosen for this recording. However, there can surely be few who won’t warm to the Fantasia in F minor, K.608. Like the other two works which conclude this disc (K.594 and K.616), K.608 was written for a mechanical instrument; all three are here played by Anders Eidsten Dahl on the 2016 organ by Tomaẑ Moĉnik in Margaretakyrkan, the Swedish Church in Oslo, the specifications of which are provided in the CD booklet. It was written for a kind of musical clock which Mozart disliked intensely – in a letter to his wife (October 3, 1790) he called the instrument “childish” and complained that the instrument had “shrill little pipes, which sound too high-pitched”, Mozart produced, especially in K.608, music of considerable beauty and power when played on a more suitable instrument, as it is here. Wolfgang Hildesheiner’s ‘psychological’ biography Mozart (original German publication 1977) is not a book of which I am particularly fond, but I find myself in full agreement with him when he writes (my quotation is taken from Marion Faber’s English translation of the book, first paperback edition, 1985, p.352) that K.594 and K.608 “are masterpieces, not just as the supreme mastery of a disagreeable task […]; but also as integral pieces of absolute music. Indeed, their absolute quality gives them life, for in this case nothing could be expressed by instrumental timbre. The […] two pieces are in a profoundly serious, almost intimidating F minor; […] they are highpoints of Mozartean achievement, of a unique logical power […]. Profound music for a mechanical box, an almost tragicomic configuration, at the very least a ‘triumph of mind over matter’. (The last words here are borrowed from A. Hyatt King’s, Mozart in Retrospect, 1970). It has to be admitted, however, that K.616 is a rather less successful piece than the other two pieces for mechanical instruments; even Mozart could not always overcome such severe limitations.

This is a disc I have enjoyed a great deal over a number of repeated hearings, both for the performances of the Epistle Sonatas, which are both well-considered and full of life, and for the impressively lucid interpretations of K.594 and K.608 by Anders Eidsten Dahl. There are, of course, other recordings of all these works, but these newly issued performances are among the best I am familiar with.

Reservations? The relative sameness of the 14 Epistle Sonatas might perhaps have been relieved by placing, say, the recording of K.616 among them in the playing order. In the Epistles the recorded sound, though pleasant, sometimes comes close to concealing the chamber organ.

Glyn Pursglove

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Church (Epistle) Sonata in E-flat major, K.67/4H (1772)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in B-flat major, K.68/41i (1772)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in D major, K.69/41k (1772)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in D major, K.144/124a (1774)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in F major, K.145/124b (1774)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in B-flat major, K.212 (1775)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in G major, K.241 (1776)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in F major, K.224/241a (1776)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in A major, K.225/241b (1776?)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in F major, K.244 (1776)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in D major, K.245 (1776)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in G major, K.274/271d (1777)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in C major, K.328/317c (1779)
Church (Epistle) Sonata in C major, K.336/336d (1780)
Adagio and Allegro in F minor, K.594 (1790)
Fantasia in F minor, K.608 (1791)
Andante in F major, K.616 (1791)