Thursday, 2 November 2017

J.S Bach from Durham Cathedral: James Lancelot

James Lancelot has provided an imaginative and inspiring selection of J.S. Bach’s organ music ranging from towering toccata-like movements to the spiritually charged intimacy of the chorale preludes. Many of these pieces are less often heard than the usual warhorses. It is a selection to savour: not to have on in the background. Although I am familiar with most of this music, I read the programme notes for each work before listening: this was extremely helpful. I do not intend to comment on every piece, as I guess they will be well-kent by all enthusiasts of Bach’s music. However, a few highlights (for me) deserve special mention.

The magisterial opening Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564 owes much to Buxtehude in its form and texture. The gorgeous central adagio may well nod towards the Italians Albinoni and Corelli.  It is wonderfully performed here.
It was good to hear the relatively rare Prelude and Fugue in A, BWV 536. There is some doubt as to the provenance of this work, but despite this, it is a satisfying piece that deserves its place in the canon. Both the Prelude and the Fugue have a restraint and innocent charm which is refreshing.
One of my favourite pieces of Bach organ music (it can be played on the piano too) is ‘Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott’, BWV 721. This seemingly simple arrangement of the melody, supported by an ‘unwavering texture of chords’ has a haunting beauty that is hard to match anywhere in the literature for the organ.  This is followed by a bewitching performance of ‘Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein’ BWV 734 with its breath-taking running semi-quavers.

J.S. Bach’s colossal Partita ‘Sei gegrüßet Jesu gütig’ BWV 768 took its inspiration from the hymn-tune setting the words ‘Hail to thee, kind Jesus.’ The Partita opens with a four-part harmonisation of this melody. This is followed by ten absorbing variations with a concluding ‘monolithic’ five-part chorale. What Bach has achieved, is to equate each variation with the sentiment of the hymn’s text, as well as subjecting the original tune to a wide variety of twists and turns. It is one of Bach’s masterpieces, and sounds stunning on the Durham Cathedral instrument. I understand that James Lancelot played this piece at his last ‘official’ recital at Durham Cathedral to huge acclaim.
The final piece on this CD is ‘Fantasia super: Komm Heiliger Geist, Herre Gott’ BWV 651 from the Great Eighteen Chorale Preludes. This ‘prelude’ musically-reflects the Day of Pentecost with the ‘rushing [of] mighty winds.’ It is, by any accounts, an impressive and exuberant toccata that must surely bring the House [of God] down. I only wish I could play it! 

The present Father Willis organ at Durham cathedral dates from 1876 when part of the organ was commissioned on St Luke’s Day. The complete instrument was ‘online’ the following year. Subsequent rebuilds, cleanings and re-voicings have been in the hands of Harrison and Harrison, a local firm based in St John’s Road, Durham. The organ has four manuals with 98 speaking stops on five divisions: Great, Swell, Choir, Solo (on Choir keys) and Pedal.  There is the usual range of couplers and accessories. The pipework is situated either side of the Cathedral choir. 
Interestingly, the pipe-fronts, which speak, were painted by the well-known ecclesiastical stained-glass firm of Clayton and Bell. For many years their decoration has been described as rolls of linoleum, nevertheless, they do fit in with the magnificent grandeur of the cathedral.
The organ is a splendid example of a romantic instrument. Although it has been engineered to allow a wide variety of music to be played, it is certainly not a ‘Back to Bach’ instrument.

The readable and informative programme notes are provided by Ian Alexander. There is a brief history of the organ, the usual specification, as well as a short note about the soloist, James Lancelot. The recording itself is well-balanced and totally striking.

There is a poignancy about this splendid disc of music by Bach, which acknowledges the long service that James Lancelot has provided to the cathedral: he has been Master of the Choristers and Organist at Durham Cathedral since 1985. He has also been prominent in other local music groups in the Durham area.
James Lancelot retired from the post this year (2017) and has subsequently been appointed Canon Organist Emeritus by the Bishop of Durham. Prior to Durham Cathedral, he was a Chorister of St Paul’s Cathedral, Organ Scholar at King’s College, Cambridge and Sub-Organist at Winchester Cathedral. His teachers included Ralph Downes, Gillian Weir and Nicholas Danby. Important recordings by Lancelot include a DVD featuring Durham Cathedral Organ and a well-received CD performance of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein.
Like many organists and organ aficionados, James Lancelot is an active railway enthusiast in his spare time. 

As noted above, the instrument at Durham Cathedral is designed for romantic music. Some organists will argue that Bach’s music should never be played on an instrument divorced in style from those known to have been played by the composer. I can see where this view comes from, nevertheless, I believe that Johann Sebastian Bach’s music will always transcend time, place, and instrument. I love hearing Bach played on a grand piano: I am equally impressed and moved by James Lancelot’s splendid recital of these great works by Bach on this superb Victorian organ. 

Track Listing:
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major BWV 564
Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 709
Trio super Herr Jesu Christ, dich zu uns wend BWV 655
Jesus Christus, unser Heiland BWV 665
Prelude and Fugue in A BWV 536
Erbarm dich mein, O Herre Gott BWV 721
Nun freut euch, lieben Christen g'mein BWV 734
Partite diverse sopra il Corale Sei gegrüsset, Jesu gütig, BWV768
Canonic Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm' ich her’ BWV 769
Fantasia super: Komm, Heiliger Geist BWV 651
James Lancelot (organ)
Rec. Durham Cathedral 10-11 October 2016
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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