Sunday, 4 March 2012

Alfred Hollins Organ Works

This CD has three distinctive elements. Firstly it places all three Concert Overtures onto one disc. Secondly it gives what would appear to be the only current recordings of Evening Rest, Benediction Nuptiale, and most importantly the Theme with Variations and Fugue.  The last bit of added value of this CD is that fact that the Caird Hall organ in Dundee was designed by Hollins himself. Even the most cursory examination of the music will reveal that the organ appears to be ideally suited to the composer’s music.

Hollins gave his opening recital on the Caird Hall instrument on Wednesday 27 June 1923.  His programme included Mendelssohn’s 1st Organ Sonata, Rossini’s William Tell Overture, a Bach fugue, two short pieces by Alexandre Guilmant and a few of his own compositions including the somewhat enigmatic Evening Rest. Interestingly the Toccata from Widor’s great 5th Symphony was given - some 40 years before being played at the Duke and duchess of Kent’s wedding in York Minster and subsequently becoming the bane of all parish-church organists’ lives.

Well over a third of this CD is devoted to the three great Concert Overtures.  The first, in C major was published in 1889 and represents Hollins’ first published piece. The work is conceived as being ‘classical’ sonata form. Yet there is nothing pedantic about this music. The sleeve notes sum it up well- “this is a work bristling with youthful vigour, from the swaggering confidence of the opening to the virtuosic display of the main allegro theme.” 
The second Concert Overture in C minor (1899) has remained in the repertoire thorough changes in Hollins’ fortunes over the years. It is a work that reveals the composer’s ability to write ‘orchestral’ music for the organ. Cyril Rootham is alleged to have written to Hollins, “You know that is a splendid overture, but it isn’t organ music. I hear the fiddles in it.” The work is a fine balance between the composer’s keyboard virtuosity and his profound understanding registration. It is a deserved masterpiece.

The third Concert Overture in F minor was the last that Hollins wrote in this form. I feel that it is perhaps the best. Of all the works on this CD it is the most involved and complex. This is deep music that is well described as being “brooding and elegiac.” It is not hard to see that the world was a very different place between the second and third overtures. Yet I do not believe that Hollins developed beyond this music. I think that it may be the intellectual and emotional highlight of his career. I think that this is truly a masterpiece and ought to be in the repertoire of all concert organists. The reality is that it is the least played.

The Andante in D is a deep and moody piece that is certainly more suitable for church services than for the recital hall. Yet the mood is more romantic than liturgical. It is an impressive arch shaped structure that has “breadth and intensity of emotion rarely found elsewhere in his [Hollins] output.” The composer himself considered this powerful work to be his best. The programme notes are not far wrong in suggesting that this work is “deserving of its reputation as one of the great slow movements in the English romantic organ repertoire.” It is a fine and moving work.

The Benediction Nuptiale is a new piece to my ears. It was composed, perhaps predictably, for the wedding day of friends of the composer. It is quite naturally a quiet and reflective piece that uses the softer registrations of the organ. A little gem.

Evening Rest does not do for me. I cannot quite explain it. It was written as a ‘nocturne’ and was designed to display a number of the features of the newly opened Johannesburg Town Hall organ.  To my ears the music never really gets going. It is a little bit ‘played for effect.’ Perhaps it sounds a wee bit like the Tower Ballroom Wurlitzer?

Little needs to be said about the three Hollins potboilers – the Maytime Gavotte, A Song of Sunshine and A Trumpet Minuet. Even in these days of a certain disdain for Victorian/Edwardian organists these works have held there own over the past eighty odd years. These works could almost be said to be bordering on ‘light’ music. Add to these the absolutely charming Allegretto Grazioso and we have four works that would bring happiness to the most morose of organ buffs. These works are great examples of tuneful music that is written with the greatest possible craftsmanship.

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener for me is the fantastic Theme with Variations with fugue. At nearly quarter of an hour this is one of Alfred Hollins’ most extended organ pieces. It was written in 1911 and reflects his “genius as composer and moreover, entertainer.”  It was dedicated to the great William Wolstenholme (when will someone bring out a CD devoted to his music?). The present piece is a misnomer – two themes are used to provide the musical material for all three parts of the work. The work opens dramatically after which the main theme is heard. This is the basis of seven variations which nod in a variety of direction – including Sullivan and Edward German. The fugue is an excellent text-book example. Yet it is not as dry as dust. It builds to an impressive climax on full organ. This is another work that well deserves to be in recitalist’s repertoire.

The CD is beautifully packaged by Delphian Records. The booklet is a model as to how all classical music booklets should be.  There are fine colour photographs of the Caird Hall Organ, two nostalgic black and white photos of the composer playing the same instrument, seven closely written pages of programme notes complete with mini bibliography. In addition there is a short essay accompanying the organ specification. A brief bio of Timothy Byram-Wigfield completes this informative package.

The recording is impressive – every registration of this fine instrument is crystal clear.  The sound balance and the clarity of the playing are never in doubt.

Unfortunately the erstwhile dedicated disc by David Liddle ‘The Organ Music of Alfred Hollins’ [Priory PRCD 398] appears to have been deleted from the catalogue.
However all is not lost. This present recording becomes the touchstone for all enthusiasts of Alfred Hollins music. The highlights of the disc are the programming of the three Concert Overtures and the delicious Allegretto grazioso. This latter piece should be a favourite of all organists and would make a fine alternative to the more usual wedding fare.
Finally at nearly 80 minutes worth of music this is excellent value for money – add in the fine playing, the great repertoire and the fantastic sound – this makes it a superb additions to all organ fans CD libraries.

Track Listing:
A Concert Overture in C major (1889) 
Benediction Nuptiale (1898) 
A Trumpet Minuet (1929) 
Allegretto grazioso (1906) 
Concert Overture in C minor (1899) 
Evening Rest (1917) 
A Concert Overture in F minor (1922) 
Andante in D (1895)  
A Song of Sunshine (1913) 
Maytime Gavotte (1927) Theme with Variations and Fugue (1911)  
Timothy Byram-Wigfield, organ
Delphian  DCD34044
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review first appeared 

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