I do not know the organ works of Kenneth Leighton (1929-88) (apart from the often-performed Paean) and have never heard ‘The Complete Organ Works’ played on the organ of St. Mary’s Cathedral, Edinburgh by Dennis Townhill (PRCD326) which is the main competition to this new ‘download’ from Resonus.
The twentieth-century produced four major British composers contributing sizable catalogues of music for the organ: Herbert Howells, William Mathias, Francis Jackson and Kenneth Leighton. Leighton’s organ music is not in the trajectory of Howells, in spite of there being some fingerprints of the elder composer in the pages of these scores. He has looked to Europe for inspiration rather than the organ lofts of English Cathedrals. Paul Hindemith would appear to have an important influence on Leighton’s sound-word: influences from Flor Peeters and Hendrik Andriessen have been remarked on.
Leighton’s first major composition for organ was the ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia’ Op.41 written in 1963. His last work was the ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ which was composed in the year before his death.
The present collection opens with the thought-provoking Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Op.46 and dates from 1975. These are not dry-as-dust ecclesiastical numbers designed to cover up the none-too-hushed conversations of congregations before the minister arrives in the pulpit, but are a fascinating and many-coloured exploration of these relatively four-square, popular hymn tunes. They are full of interest, inventiveness and imagination.
Also using a hymn tune is the Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm-tune, Op. 73 which is written for organ duet. Interestingly (and mind bogglingly) both performers are required to play pedals in this piece! It is divided up into three sections and is preceded by a statement of the original hymn-tune. The work proper opens with a dark meditation which builds to a ‘thunderous’ climax. The second section contrasts a double-fugue with toccata-like figuration. It concludes with a ‘gigue-like’ passage followed by a powerful restatement of the tune ‘Martyrs’.
The Improvisation in Memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez uses the familiar arch-structure favoured by Herbert Howells. The composer wrote that this deeply-introverted piece is conceived in ‘... a mood of mourning and protest symbolised in the conflict between lyrical counterpoint, and an ostinato (subject to variation) consisting of three chord clusters which persist throughout the piece. The clusters reach a climax of intensity in a chord containing all the notes of the chromatic scale’.
Kenneth Leighton’s largest achievement for solo organ is his Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass), Op. 82 which was written in 1980. It is considerably longer than his fine Organ Concerto written some years previously. The work is divided into six sections which reflect the traditional divisions of the Mass – Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. The finale is a toccata based on ‘Ite, missa est’ – ‘Go, the Mass has ended’. Leighton has made use of a plainchant melody derived from the ‘Proper’ for Easter Day in the 12th century Sarum Liturgy in most of the sections of this work. The composer claimed that it was he first of his work to be ‘almost entirely inspired’ by plainsong.
This is a huge, powerful work that sometimes haunts the same musical world as Messiaen’s earlier organ music.
This is the first download that I have reviewed. Like the transition that many listeners made some 30 years ago from vinyl to CD, I have had my reservations about the media. Yet progress is always inevitable.
The present download is available in four different formats – MP3, AAC, FLAC 16-bit and FLAC 24-bit. The latter requires a large amount of data storage with a single album requiring up to 1GB of memory.
One of my big issues with some ‘record’ companies is that the liner-notes are not available for download or cut and paste. Chandos, Hyperion and Naxos all have good access to these important documents on their webpages. Alas, a number of other producers do not provide these as part of the download: certainly, Amazon does not include them in purchases. So I was delighted to find that there is a set of freely available documentation available on the Resonus website as part of this download – including a well-produced ‘booklet/liner notes’ in .pdf format. There are also a number of photos of the artists, the advertising ‘flyer’ and a scan of the ‘cover.’ This allows the listener to evaluate the release before purchase.
Biographical notes are given on the organists Stephen Farr and James Butt. Farr is the main performer on this download and is currently organist at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge as well as having a busy concert career.
The music is performed on the Rieger Organ in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. This was installed in 1992 and is justly famous. The liner notes give the specification for this impressive three-manual instrument, however there is no history of its concept and construction – for example the effective reuse of two pedal stops from the old Willis organ (1940). All this kind of information would be of profound interest to organ-music enthusiasts.
I am grateful to be able to explore a new facet of Kenneth Leighton’s music. He is a composer that I have always been able to do business with: his balance of modernism and tradition is ideal. I thoroughly enjoyed this new download from Resonus and look forward to reviewing the second volume in this projected series.
Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes, Op. 72 (1975)
Martyrs: Dialogues on a Scottish Psalm-tune, Op. 73 (1976) for organ duet
Improvisation in Memoriam Maurice de Sausmarez (1969)
Missa de Gloria (Dublin Festival Mass), Op. 82 (1980)
Stephen Farr (organ) John Butt (organ)
RESONUS LIMITED RES10134
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.