Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Great European Organs No.85: Daniel Cook plays the T.C. Lewis Organ of St. George's Church, Cullercoats

Alan GRAY (1855-1935) Fantasia in D minor 
William MCKIE (1901-1984) Romance in B flat 
Charles H. LLOYD (1849-1919) Sonata in D minor 
John STAINER (1840-1901) Andante Pathetique
Gordon PHILLIPS (1908-1991) Postlude for a Festival
Alec ROWLEY (1892-1958) Soliloquy 
Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947) Introduction and Fughetta (from The Organ))
Alec ROWLEY Second Benedictus 
York BOWEN (1884-1961) Melody in G minor
Arthur MILNER (1894-1972) Introduction and Fugue Prelude on a theme of Palestrina, Toccata
Daniel Cook (organ) PRIORY PRCD1083

I was reminded of Cullercoats a few years ago when I was in New York. One of the most impressive pictures in the Metropolitan Art Gallery collection is Winslow Homer’s ‘Inside the Bar’ which features a feisty woman commonly known as the ‘Cullercoats Fish-lass’ which was painted in 1883. For personal reasons, Homer had ended up in this Northumberland village situated near Tynemouth on the North Sea Coast. He remained there for nearly two years. At that time Cullercoats attracted artists and photographers who were captivated by the rugged way of life of the fisher folk and wished to capture it for posterity. 
Unfortunately, Winslow Homer could not have attended St George’s Church as it was not consecrated until after he departed for the States. However, he is likely to have witnessed its construction. The church is situated on an impressive site above the beach. The architect was John Loughborough Pearson who was a native of Durham and is best known for designing Truro Cathedral. The organ was built by the Thomas Christopher Lewis in consultation with William Rea who at that time was the Organist to the City of Newcastle. It was dedicated just a few months after the consecration. The instrument has some 26 speaking stops over two manuals and pedals. According to the church webpages it is the only unaltered Lewis organ remaining in the Diocese of Newcastle and one of only a handful in the entire country. The main bellows can still be hand-blown although a Discus blower has been fitted. The instrument was restored in 1987 by Harrison and Harrison. In spite of its relatively small scale this organ creates a hugely impressive sound.

Most of the pieces on this CD are by Victorian Gentlemen. The two exceptions are Sir William Mackie and and Gordon Phillips who were both born during Edward VII’s reign. I have listened to and played some dire Victorian organ music over the years: I will not mention any names, just in case I malign someone’s favourite ‘discovery’. Listeners will know the type of ‘grind and strain’ that I allude to. Do not except any of this third rate music on this CD.  I have always known that there was a wide range of achievement in this period; alas, some organists have usually chosen to provide just one facet of it.

This CD gets of to a great start with Alan Gray’s Fantasia in D minor. Gray was born in York, studied with E.G. Monk at the Minster and latterly taught at Wellington College before succeeding Charles Villiers Stanford as organist at Trinity College, Cambridge. This long Fantasia is really a ‘prelude and fugue’ which takes as its model similar works by Joseph Rheinberger and Gustav Merkel. It is a satisfying piece that skilfully exploits the tone-colours of the organ. The work was composed in 1894 and is better for having used a Germanic model. There is nothing sentimental or sugary here.

Sir William McKie was born in Melbourne, Australia but later moved to England: he studied at the Royal Royal College of Music and at Worcester College, Oxford. He held major appointments as organist at Magdalen College, Oxford, and at Westminster Abbey.  McKie directed the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and had also composed an anthem for the Royal Wedding of 1948. I guess that he is not a particularly well-known composer but is occasionally recalled by some for his choral music. His single contribution to the organ repertoire is the present Romance in B flat. It is a short piece that has modal inflections: it is not a great work, but it is an attractive, short voluntary that would be suitable at almost any Church service.

It is always easy to take a pot-shot at Sir John Stainer, mainly by folk who know little of his music. There was a time when every church choir battled through his cantata The Crucifixion during Holy Week. My very first organ tutor was written by Stainer – I still have it somewhere. Included in this primer was a short Prelude and Fugue, which I struggled to master. It was, alas, one of the few organ pieces that Stainer composed. The present ‘Andante Pathetique’ has a memorable tune and is skilfully harmonised.  I guess it is one of those pieces that ought to be heard with an ‘innocent ear’ so as to give it a chance of being appreciated rather than derided. It is good to have it here.

Gordon Phillips’ is recalled by many organists as being the editor of Tallis to Wesley – a comprehensive series of musical publications exploring early organ music including the complete voluntaries of John Stanley. Phillips studied with John Ireland at the Royal College of Music and latterly with Sir Ernest Bullock. For many years he was organist at ‘Tubby’ Clayton’s church of All-Hallows-by-the-Tower.  I can certainly recall attending his recitals there in the late 80’s.  The present ‘Postlude’ was published in 1957.  It is a good, gutsy piece that can be played as an imposing recessional after High Mass or Matins.

Sir Walter Alcock’s ‘Introduction and Fughetta’ will be known to countless generations of organists who studied the instrument with the help of ‘The Organ’ which was published in 1913. At the back of this tutor are a number of pieces in varying styles. Daniel Cook has suggested that in this relatively short piece, the composer has ‘distilled all of the techniques needed for the performance of the large romantic literature for the organ into an exquisite miniature masterpiece’. Certainly, this is an excellent work that transcends its genesis as a teaching piece. Interestingly Sir Walter has the distinction of having played the organ at the coronations of three monarchs – Edward VII (1902), George V (1911) and George VI (1937)

Many years ago, I found a bound album of organ music by Alec Rowley in a second hand bookshop. I was surprised at the depth of some of these pieces. Up until then I had always assumed the Rowley was a ‘didactic’ composer writing piano music for ‘grades’ and ‘amateurs.’ Do not misunderstand me: I love his music and often play through some of his piano suites. The ‘Second Benedictus’ shows a profound side to the composer that I scarcely imagined. In spite of the title, and its inscription, ‘In quiet contemplation shall peace guide your ways,’ this is a truly romantic piece of music that seems to ‘crossover’ from the chancel to a garden on a late summer’s evening… It is heartbreakingly beautiful.  Alec Rowley’s ‘Soliloquy’ has an equally reflective, questioning nature. It is written in the ubiquitous arch-form, with a forceful climax. Once again this beautiful piece is effective in or out of ‘places where they sing.’

York Bowen is now regarded as a composer of fine orchestral and piano music (unfairly dubbed the English Rachmaninoff). Only two of his organ works were published: the Fantasia op.136 as part of the Novello collection ‘Retrospection’ and the present Melody in G minor.  Interestingly, Donald Cook states in the liner notes that Bowen also wrote some concerted works for the instrument: alas these remain unpublished. The present work is beautifully written: it is both romantic and reflective. This is no sentimental melody, but an ‘ingeniously contrived’ exploration of a beautiful theme.

Arthur Milner (do not confuse with Anthony Milner (1925-2002)) was originally a Manchester lad; he spent most of his life in the county of Northumberland. He held academic posts at Durham University and at Newcastle Royal Grammar School. He was organist at various churches including St George’s Newcastle. The liner notes state that he wrote much music including a symphony, works for string orchestra, chamber music and piano. There is also a deal of organ music. Three works are presented on this disc. The striking ‘Introduction and Fugue’ written for Reginald Alwyn Surplice (1906-1977) organist at Winchester Cathedral. The ‘Prelude on a theme of Palestrina’ is a commanding, introverted arch-shaped piece that makes use of a tune from the Italian composer’s ‘Missa Brevis’. The final contribution from Arthur Milner is the tricky Toccata. It was dedicated to Arnold Richardson, organist at Southwark Cathedral. This is a fine example of the genre, spicily dissonant with a driving, dominant melody. There is a quiet middle section that lulls the listener into a false sense of calm. The ‘Toccata’ concludes with a reprise of the complex figurations supported by huge chords. This work should be a part of all organists ‘warhorse’ repertoire.

The most important work and the most surprising (for me) was the High-Victorian Organ Sonata in D minor by Charles Harford Lloyd. The liner notes do not let on, but this work was published in 1886.  The Sonata is dedicated to (Father) Henry Willis. This three movement work lasts for about 18 minutes and has an interesting formal construction. The opening movement is an ‘allegro’ which appears to be written in a fairly ‘classical’ sonata form. This music is wide-ranging, full of energy: the slower ‘second subject’ is particularly attractive.  There are some typically Victorian melodic and harmonic clichés, but also some passages pushing towards something a little more ‘French’ in its sound world. The second movement is a very brief, but quite delicious ‘andante’ which has surprisingly ‘remote’ modulation in its middle section.  I guess that I would have expected a fugue to conclude this fine sonata; however, Lloyd surprises us by providing what is effectively a ‘dance’ or as it is signed in the music ‘quasi minuet.’  The reviewer in The Musical Times (March 1886) suggests that the composer has not produced a prohibitively virtuosic piece: he has ‘not piled up difficulties unnecessarily, and his work is therefore within the means of ordinarily competent players.’ I think that the listener will be agreeably impressed at this generally restrained and dignified Sonata. It demands to be in the repertoire.

Daniel Cook has an impressive career. At present he is Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral as well as an involvement in the Cathedral Festival.  He is also director of the Dyfed Choir, artistic director of Mousai Singers. He has a busy programme of recitals, concerts and recordings.  Cook has made a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works (ongoing) of Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion and Charles Villiers Stanford.  This year Daniel Cook was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. In September he makes a career move to moves to Westminster Abbey as Sub-Organist.

The sound quality of this CD is perfect. I felt that I was actually sitting in the nave of St, George’s Church, Cullercoats listening to this music. The playing of all these pieces is sympathetic and well-balanced. The liner notes are exactly what are needed with a good paragraph or two for each work. However, little more information about some of these composers would have come in handy. And what about giving the dates of all the works?  There are photographs of the console and some pipework.  Included are the usual organ specification and a detailed biography of Daniel Cook.

The present CD is a truly imaginative exploration of British music. There is not a single piece on this record that is ‘hackneyed’ or is a ‘pot-boiler’ yet every work is impressive and demands our attention. It is an opportunity to look into the less-trodden paths British music.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

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