I omitted to post this review back in 2015. Following Francesca Massey's excellent new disc of organ music from King's Lynn Minster I felt that it was high time I presented here.
This CD gets of to a fine start with a rare excursion into the organ loft with York Bowen: in his catalogue there is also a Melody in G minor and a transcription of the orchestral Somerset Suite. The composer, who is best known for his piano works, is often unfairly dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov.’ Pianistic textures with considerable use of octaves in the right hand, arpeggios and chromatic scale figurations are to the fore in this Fantasia, although I do believe that these work exceptionally well (in this case) for organ. The liner notes do not mention that this Fantasia was written in 1949 and received its first outing during the Festival of Britain by the work’s dedicatee Arnold Richardson. It is a romantic piece with one or two nods towards something a little more hard-edged.
The second piece is a million miles away in mood and tone. Olivier Messiaen composed his Diptyque for organ in 1930: it is subtitled ‘essay on earthly life and blessed eternity.’ Diptyque was dedicated jointly to Paul Dukas and Marcel Dupré. There could not be a greater disparity between the two ‘panels’ of this early masterpiece. The opening section has a powerful rhythmic drive that displays huge suffering and torment. Suddenly, the dreamy second ‘panel’ begins. This is timeless (as in duration) music that reveals much of the nature of the Christian view of peace and eternal rest. Messiaen was to reuse this material in his superlative Quatuor pour la fin de temps, which was written and performed in a German prisoner of war camp during the winter of 1941. Diptyque is beautifully played here by Francesca Massey.
I have never heard Oskar Lindberg’s Sonata in G minor before. This four movement work was written by the Swedish composer, organist and teacher in 1924. The liner notes suggest that the music was composed in a late romantic style evoking Rachmaninov, Sibelius and the French Impressionists. It was dedicated to his friend, the composer Albert Lindström (1853-1935). The first movement is a lugubrious funeral march. This is followed by a spectral adagio which is has a sound of improvisation written all over it. The next movement, ‘alla sarabanda’ is also mysterious in its working out: this is gloomy music indeed. The finale is impressive with a powerful rhythmic drive and an equally imposing hymn-like peroration.
Marcel Dupré’s fine Prelude and Fugue in F minor, op.7 no.2 was a commemorative work written in memory of the blind organist Augustin Barié who died in 1915. This is a quiet, retrospective piece that clearly pays deep homage to his friend. Some listeners have noticed the shadow of Claude Debussy over this music. In spite of its reticence, this Prelude and Fugue is not despairing: there is a profound confidence and hope in these pages.
The performance of William Mathias’ Variations on a Hymn Tune op. 20 is outstanding. This large recital work was written in 1962 and is based on the well-known Welsh hymn ‘Briant.’ There is a short introduction, followed by a statement of the hymn, then six variations each exploring a phrase from the tune. A huge variety of timbres and musical genres are heard here: this ranges from the string stops, to magical flutes and the heavy reeds. The composer presents his variations in the form of ‘dances, marches, elegies and fanfares.’ There is always a good balance between Mathias’ skipping figurations and his more intimate moments. The work closes with massive four-part harmony on the tuba stop.
Jehan Alain’s ‘Choral Cistercien pour une elevation’ was composed in 1934. It was conceived with a liturgical function in mind: the offering up of the Host during Mass. The work was discovered after his death and is believed to have been written at the Cistercian Abbey in Valloires in the Somme department of France, where the composer would go on retreat. Alain’s life and career was cut short by a sniper’s bullet during the Battle of Saumur in 1940.
The penultimate work on this CD is the Toccata on ‘Nu la oss takke Gud’ (Now thank we all our God) by the Norwegian composer Egil Hovland. It was composed in 1973. The liner notes suggests that his compositional style is eclectic: his teachers included Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola. It is a great example of an exuberant recessional piece of music. Hovland’s virtuosic writing for the instrument includes cascades of sound, running scales, rapidly alternating chords and clusters in the last bars.
The final work on this CD is Francis Pott’s ‘Empyrean’ which was envisioned during a performance of Berlioz’s Requiem Mass in Ely Cathedral. The composer writes that the play of light in the Octagon of the cathedral provided him with a metaphor of the human soul rising heavenward. The piece begins quietly and concludes in ‘full blazing immediacy.’ It is a work that I enjoyed infinitely more than its inspiration.
Francesca Massey began her musical career as a pianist, singer and violinist. She was a founder member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Youth Chorus. Massey took the opportunity of a gap-year Organ Scholarship at St George’s Windsor Chapel, before taking her music degree at Cambridge. During her studies, Massey was Organ Scholar at Gonville and Caius College and later organist at Great St Mary’s Church. Subsequent appointments have included Organ Scholar at Manchester Cathedral, Assistant Director of Music at Peterborough before taking up her current position as Sub-Organist at Durham Cathedral.
It is always a pleasure to hear the large four-manual Father Willis organ in Durham Cathedral whether in recital, on CD or at Evensong. The organ was originally installed in 1876 and was then ‘state-or-the-art.’ It was rebuilt between 1905 and 1934 by Harrison & Harrison, the long delay being as a result of financial restraints. The instrument was again rebuilt by the same organ-builder in 1970 when a new console was added and other modifications which balanced contemporary aspirations with the historic nature of the organ.
The liner notes are informative and quite detailed, however it would have been helpful if the date of every piece had been given. These notes include the all-essential specification as well as a brief history of the organ.
It is almost superfluous to praise the sound quality of this CD: it is exactly as one expects from Priory. The listener can well imagine they are in the nave of the cathedral. Everything is clear and the various timbres of the stops are well-balanced and distinct.
This is a fine addition to the recorded collection of Great British Organs. It presents a diverse and imaginative programme that is superbly played and finely recorded. It will be a ‘must’ for all organ enthusiasts.
York BOWEN (1884-1961) Fantasia, op. 136 (1949)
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992) Diptyque (1930)
Oskar LINDBERG (1887-1955) Sonata in G minor (1924)
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971) Prelude and Fugue in F minor, op.7 No.2 (c.1915)
William MATHIAS (1934-1992) Variations on a Hymn Tune, op. 20 (1962)
Jehan ALAIN (1911-40) Choral Cistercien pour une élévation (1934)
Egil HOVLAND (1924-2013) Nu la oss takke Gud (Organ Toccata) (1973)]
Francis POTT (b.1957) Empyrean (1982) [6:58]
Francesca Massey (organ)
Rec. 22-24 September 2014, Durham Cathedral.
PRIORY PRCD1137 [76:20]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this reviews was orginally published in 2015.