John Kitchen has always had an eye towards innovative and imaginative programming and the exploration of unfamiliar repertoire. In 1972 he introduced me to Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Oxford Elegy for which I have been eternally grateful. Less influential on me (I confess) was his passion for Berlioz’s The Trojans and Wagner’s Tristan. Whether it is the music of the ‘unknown’ (Louis) Couperin, the organ music of Johann Ludwig Krebs, the voluntaries of William Russell and the hidden treasures of the Victorian Organ Sonata, John Kitchen has never failed to present the interested listener with a wide-range of musical styles and eras. This has been clear in his organ and harpsichord recitals as well as in the recording studio. The present CD is no exception to the above observation.
The programme has an underlying theme of ‘bells’ and ‘chimes.’ The opening number by Cecilia McDowall ‘Church bells beyond the stars’ was a 2013 commission from the Edinburgh Society of Organists to mark its centenary. It is a stimulating piece that explores a wide range of ‘bell sounds’. The conclusion is particularly breath-taking. Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s evocative Holsworthy Church Bells is well-known to organists and recital-goers alike. This present recording features the Usher Hall organ’s carillon, which is a set of tuned metal bars played from the manuals. It is a lovely, even moving, rendition of this piece. The final ‘bell’ piece is by Bernard Rose, former Informator Choristarum of Magdalen College, Oxford from 1957-1981. ‘Chimes’ was one of the numbers published in Hovingham Sketches (1974) which was a gift from the Royal College of Organists to HRH The Duchess of Kent. The piece, perhaps unsurprisingly, is based on the chimes at Magdalen. It is a lovely, thoughtful but slightly reticent work.
The raison-d’être of Alexander Guilmant’s Marche funèbre et chant séraphique, (Fantasie pour l’orgue, op. 17) was to show off the ‘wide range of timbres’ on the new (1868) Cavaillé-Coll organ in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Likewise, John Kitchen has used this piece to showcase the fine dynamics and voicing of the Usher Hall organ. The piece is in two sections – a march rising to a huge climax, and a ‘song of angels’ which is ethereal.
I am not a great enthusiast of organ transcriptions of orchestral works. However, Jeremy Cull’s arrangement of the Scottish composer Hamish MacCunn’s well-loved overture The Land of the Mountain and Flood is excellent. It is unfortunate that this composer is neglected both in Scotland and furth of the border. Most of his orchestral works have been recorded: his operas (apart from an extract from Jeannie Deans), choral music and songs languish.
I was delighted that this CD includes some ‘light’ music. There is always a danger that organ recitals can become a little po-faced or high-falutin’. No chance of that with these three fantastic pieces.
Christopher Maxim’s (a name I have not come across before) Toccata Nupitale is clearly angling to become a bridal favourite to match some of the better-known (and hackneyed) pieces. Maxim has counterpoised a Vierne-like Toccata with the once-popular song written by Harry Dacre in 1892 ‘Daisy Bell’. (Daisy, Daisy / Give me your answer, do. / I'm half-crazy / All for the love of you…’ concluding with the line ‘a bicycle built for two.’) Seemingly, the present toccata was composed especially for a cyclist friend! It is witty, fun and clearly not a cinch to play.
Clifton Hughes’s ‘Dance Variations on Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’ deserves to be widely known: it would be a major ‘hit’ wherever it was played. Kitchen manages to make the great Usher Hall organ sound like an instrument once found in the Roxy, the Gaumont or the Odeon. Hornpipes, waltzes and the tango are all grist to Rudolph’s mill.
The final ‘pop’ is ‘Johnny on the Spot’ which is a ‘piano novelty’ dating from the 1940s composed by Sherman Myers (better known to pianists as Montague Ewing.) It is a delightful miniature that makes an ideal crossover onto the concert organ.
I am not quite sure why John Kitchen has chosen to present a ‘selection’ from Charles Marie Widor’s well-known Symphony No.5 for organ. Clearly there was not room on the CD for the missing movements, however this repertoire is widely recorded (24 recordings of the entire work and 82 of the Toccata) so maybe one or two of the composer’s lesser-known pieces would have been interesting. That said, these three movements are outstandingly and imaginatively played on the Usher Hall organ.
The final number is Bach’s massive Passacaglia and Fugue, BWV 582. This is a work popular with organists and has been extensively recorded. The added-value of this present version is that it has been registered ‘in Edwardian romantic style’ as Thomas Collinson, onetime Master of Music at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, may have played it in the year that the Usher Hall organ was inaugurated (1914). As Kitchen points out, it is totally ‘inauthentic’ but who cares? I love this.
In 2003 John Kitchen was appointed Edinburgh City Organist, a post he still occupies. The job includes not only organising and playing in a popular series of recitals at the Usher Hall, but also promoting the instrument and undertaking ‘curatorial duties.’ Kitchen is heavily involved in Edinburgh musical life, including being Director of Music at Old Saint Paul’s Church, conductor of the Edinburgh University Singers and University Organist. He is also a busy accompanist, continuo player, lecturer, examiner, adjudicator, writer and reviewer. Until August 2014 Kitchen was a Senior Lecturer in Music at the University of Edinburgh.
The Usher Hall organ celebrated its centenary in 2014. This ‘monumental’ instrument was built by Norman & Beard at the then huge cost of £4000. Unfortunately, the organ fell into desuetude during the 1970s due largely to problems of humidity and temperature control. The liner notes point out that the instrument’s ‘neglect’ spared it from ‘baroquisation’ which may have been its fate if money had been devoted to its restoration at that period. It was not until the early ‘nineties that the organ was brought back into use and was thoroughly refurbished by Harrison & Harrison under the auspices of David Sanger. The pipework remained unaltered although the electro-pneumatic action was completely overhauled. It is therefore an excellent example of what a large Edwardian concert organ would have sounded like.
The sound on this CD is excellent. The liner notes mention the fact that there is ‘more reverberation on this recording’ than normal for the Usher Hall: this was due to all the upholstered seats in the stalls being temporarily removed. The CD insert was written by John Kitchen and is characteristically informative and approachable. There is a detailed history of the organ and the essential specification so vital to organ enthusiasts.
Altogether, this is a superb recital that explores a wide-range of music. John Kitchen has presented a number of new works (possibly to become new favourites?) and some well-established masterpieces. He brings huge flair, understanding, characteristic humour and an intimate knowledge of organ registration and repertoire to this disc.
Cecilia MCDOWALL (b.1951) Church bells beyond the stars (2013)
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911) Marche funèbre et chant séraphique, (Fantasie pour l’orgue, op. 17) (1865)
Samuel Sebastian WESLEY (1810-76) Holsworthy Church Bells (1874)
Hamish MACCUNN (1868-1916) The Land of the Mountain and the Flood - Concert Overture, Op. 3 (1886-7) arr. Jeremy CULL (?)
Bernard ROSE (1916-1997) Chimes (1974)
Christopher MAXIM (b.1971) Toccata Nuptiale (?)
Clifton HUGHES (b.1946) Dance Variations on ‘Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer’ (?)
Sherman MYERS (Montague Ewing) (1890-1957) Johnny on the Spot (1940s)
Charles-Marie WIDOR (1844-1937) Organ Symphony No. 5 in F minor, Op. 42 No. 1 (Movements I, Allegro vivace, IV, Adagio & V, Toccata) (1879)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV582 (c1706-13)
John Kitchen (organ)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.