Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995) (Tracklisting at end of post)
The proceedings open with a tantalising work. The ‘Prelude and Aria’ (1940) began life as an orchestral overture ‘In the Cotswolds’ which received its first performance at the Hereford Three Choirs Festival in 1930. The liner notes suggest that this work had some considerable personal significance for the composer as he frequently mentioned it as being part of his oeuvre. A number of the overture’s themes were worked into the organ piece. Curiously, although the title suggests two divisions, the work is actually in ternary form. It was edited by Basil Ramsey for inclusion in a proposed ‘Book of Organ Pieces’: it was never published. This is a restrained work that, like much of Sumsion, makes an ideal entry voluntary. However, the thought of the ‘forgotten’ overture still teases me…
The ‘Cradle Song’ was composed in 1954 and explores a restrained mood that is less of a ‘lullaby’ than an ‘elegy’. It is one of the loveliest pieces on this CD.
Looking at the ‘works list’ in Wikipedia, which was created by Diane Nolan Cooke, reveals that Sumsion wrote a number of pieces in genres other than the organ and liturgical choral music. There is the above mentioned overture. Also for orchestra is an Idyll: At Valley Green, a tone-poem (?) Lerryn and a Romance for string orchestra. There are two Piano Trios, a Sonata in C minor for Cello and Piano, one for Violin and Piano in E minor as well as a string quartet. Two works were issued for cello and piano, By the Lake and A Mountain Tune: the latter being also arranged for string orchestra (1946). Both pieces were dedicated to the composer’s wife, Alice. In 1955 Sumsion transcribed them for organ. They are well-wrought pieces that have considerable depth and sometimes a restrained passion.
The ‘Sarabande and Interlude’ were composed for inclusion in Oxford University Press’s A Second Easy Album for Organ. (Not that easy I hasten to add, at least for me) These two pieces cleverly combine old English dance forms with the influence of Herbert Howells. They are a pleasure to listen to: restraint and introspection are the basic moods here.
It is good that this second CD of the Complete Works of Herbert Sumsion included his arrangements of Vaughan Williams and J.S. Bach. The ‘Carol’ and ‘Musette’ were extracted from RVW’s rarely heard Suite of Viola and Small Orchestra which was composed in 1934. Sumsion made the organ arrangements four years later. Both pieces transcribe well for organ and represent a synthesis of the two composer’s moods and styles. It is no secret that the older composer was a major influence on Sumsion. One of Vaughan William’s loveliest minor works is the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes for small orchestra, premiered at the Three Choirs’ Festival in 1936. A good version of the original work can be heard on EMI CZS5739862 with Richard Hickox and the Northern Sinfonia of England. Herbert Sumsion has faithfully presented the mood of these works in spite of some technical difficulties presented to the organist.
The transcription of Bach’s aria ‘Komm, Süsser Tod’ is virtually note for note the original. Cooke suggests that the only additions are the two-bar introduction and a few passing notes in the pedals. It was originally intended for the above-mentioned book of organ pieces by Basil Ramsey.
Herbert Brewer was a major influence on Sumsion’s career. For one thing, he studied with Brewer for a number of years and he succeeded him as director of the Three Choirs Festival in 1928. It could be argued that the two Brewer arrangements included on this disc are merely makeweights. However, the world would be a worse place without these two realisations of Elgar’s music. The first is the deeply introspective and highly emotional ‘Prelude and Angel’s Farewell’ from The Dream of Gerontius. This is a difficult piece for the organ as the original scoring does not transfer easily to instrument. The second is the charming, ‘light’ Chanson de Matin which works ideally for organ. Originally devised for violin and piano this piece has been arranged for just about every combination of instruments imaginable. It is perfect here on the organ of St. David’s Cathedral.
The final work on this excellent CD is the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ composed in 1960. Diane Nolan Cooke suggests that this is the nearest that Sumsion came to writing an Organ Sonata. It is the longest piece for the instrument in the composer’s catalogue. The opening ‘Air’ is quite airy in its mood and almost dance-like in character. The following ‘Berceuse’ is, as its French title implies, a Lullaby. I am not sure that that this music implies a baby being sung to sleep: it is more of Sumsion’s ‘landscape’ music reflecting on the Cotswolds. The finale of this ‘sonata’ is a ‘Procession’ which is really a good example of a recessional march. This ‘Procession’ was played at Herbert Howells’ funeral in 1983, ‘serving as an appropriate testament to the lifelong friendship between the two men.’ Stylistically the ‘Air, Berceuse and Procession’ does not really belong to the late ‘fifties’/early ‘sixties’: there is no suggestion of sharp dissonance, tone rows or other contemporary devices in Sumsion’s music.
Organ enthusiasts will be delighted with the notes detailing the complex and intriguing history and specification of the St David’s Cathedral instrument. This Father Willis organ has been subject to a number of rebuilds and partial relocations within the building since it was built in 1883. The original case was criticised as being ‘a poor exhibition of woodwork and paint.’ Subsequent work included a new case, the addition of a 32ft Open Wood pipes in the South Transept and electro-pneumatic action. The organ now has four manuals and fifty-four stops. Thirty-one of the original Willis stops have survived as the basis of the present instrument. The latest rebuild was carried out by Harrison & Harrison: it was dedicated on Sunday 15 October, 2000.
The sound of this splendid instrument is well-captured by the Priory recording engineer Neil Collier. The liner notes by Diane Nolan Cooke are a model of their kind. She is clearly the leading authority on Sumsion currently writing.
Daniel Cook was until recently Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a significant involvement there with the Cathedral Festival. In September 2013 he was appointed to the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is also currently artistic director of Mousai Singers who have lately released a fine album of British music with a ‘Welsh Connection’. Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory Records, including the complete works of Herbert Brewer, Charles Villiers Stanford (on-going) and a selection of music by Walter Alcock.
Herbert Sumsion’s music is basically melodic, conservative and always pleasing to the ear. The musical impact of his musical teachers, friends and fellow composers such as Elgar, Parry, Brewer, Stanford and Howells can be heard in these work. Sumsion’s great contribution to British organ music is that he has managed combine influences from these sources into a credible and often moving language of his own. Daniel Cook has brilliantly and creatively reflected this fusion in his playing. Combined with Volume 1 of Herbert Sumsion’s organ music this set makes a splendid tribute to a fine, but sometimes neglected British composer.
Prelude and Aria (1940)
Cradle Song (1954)
Saraband and Interlude (pub.1975)
Carol (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38)
Musette (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1934/38)
Eventide (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38)
Dominus Regit Me (Ralph Vaughan Williams) arranged by Sumsion (1936/38)
Aria ‘Komm Süsser Tod’ (Johann Sebastian Bach) arranged by Sumsion
Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) (1900/03)
Chanson de Matin (Edward Elgar) arranged by Herbert BREWER (1889/1904)
Air, Berceuse and Procession (1960)
Daniel Cook (organist)