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Sounds Idyllic: A Little Organ Book In Memory Of Hubert Parry
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918) ‘Preston’
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924) ‘Why does azure deck the sky’
Alfred Herbert BREWER (1865-1928) Carillon
Alan GRAY (1855-1935) Slow
Charles MACPHERSON (1870-1927) Andante soavemente e dolce
Ivor ATKINS (1869-1953) Chorale Prelude on ‘Worcester’
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941) Lento
Harold Edwin DARKE (1888-1876) Andantino
Charles WOOD (1866-1926) Andante
Walter Gilpin ALCOCK (1861-1947) Rather slowly
George THALBEN BALL (1896-1987) Elegy
Henry George LEY (1887-1962) Improvisation
Henry Walford DAVIES (1869-1941) Prelude on ‘Jesu Dulcis Memoria’

Six Short Preludes and Postludes, op. 101: 1. Allegretto in F, 2. Allegro non troppo e pesante in G minor, 3. Allegro non troppo in E flat, 4.Andante tranquillo in F, 5. Andante maestoso in G, 6. Andante con moto in E flat

Six Organ Pieces: 1. Allegretto grazioso in A, 2. Allegro comodo in B flat, 3. Allegro marziale e ben marcato in D, 4. Andante con moto in D flat, 5. Andantino in F minor, 6. Allegro ben moderato in D
Peter Dyke (organ)
Recorded on the organ of Hereford Cathedral, 4-6 September 2002
LAMMAS LAMM 148D [75:30]

In February 1924 the Year Book Press issued "A Little Organ Book in memory of Hubert Parry" with the following note:

At Sir Hubert Parry’s funeral in St. Paul’s Cathedral on October 16th 1918, a few of his friends made a small wreath of melodies, which were woven together and played. The pieces in this Book have been written and given by these friends and a few besides, as a rather larger wreath, in loving memory of him. The title of the book was suggested by the original heading on his own piece (which stands as the first of them), "For the Little Organ Book".

I have known this volume since my schooldays – my teacher was fond of Parry’s own piece but I don’t remember her playing any of the others and indeed until this disc arrived I had never heard any of them except by courtesy of my own efforts. In spite of the overall elegiac tone imposed by the occasion the book makes an attractive sequence, for the pieces are individually of good quality and offer a useful cross-section of the composers who were writing for organ in Georgian England. Many of the names here will be familiar to readers of the biography of Elgar; the Three Choirs Festival is something of a leitmotif in the careers of many of them, so the choice of Hereford as a venue could not be more apt.

Not all the high and low points are where one would expect. Parry’s own piece is charming if hardly profound, and the working out is perfunctory. Parry’s organ music is mostly on a large scale (and usually magnificent); the title of this brief movement suggests that he had in mind to compose a book of brief introductory voluntaries in the manner of S.S. Wesley, but he got no further with the project.

Stanford was devoted to Parry although for temperamental reasons they were destined to cross swords to the bitter end. This brief improvisation on one of Parry’s earliest published songs parades all that is weakest in late Stanford, principally a tendency to use fidgety modulations and augmented note-values as a prop for failing inspiration. The Stanford we love shines forth fitfully towards the end, but the master’s voice is heard more potently through his favourite pupil Charles Wood, whose Andante sounds at the beginning almost too Stanfordian to be true.

Gray, Macpherson, Alcock and Ley fall gratefully upon the ear without leaving an abiding impression, but Brewer’s "Carillon" and Atkins’s prelude on "Worcester" are made of sterner stuff while Walford Davies offers some wafting, almost French-sounding harmonies. On this showing Darke and, to a lesser extent, Thalben-Ball belong to those pastoralists to whom belongs also Alec Rowley and of whom Gerald Finzi was the supreme poetic voice, genuine artists who could speak of the transience of life, their idyllic landscapes ever threatened by the chill of a passing black cloud. The most remarkable piece, however, is that by Bridge, full of his characteristic bitter-sweet harmonies and sounding decidedly modern in this context.

The remainder of the disc is dedicated to collections of pieces by the two composers who, together with Parry, were surely the major figures present in the "Little Organ Book". In all his period as an active organist (some twenty years from his arrival in Cambridge to his resignation from Trinity College in 1892) Stanford wrote, as far as we know, only two pieces for the instrument, an unpublished Chorale-Prelude on "Jesu Dulcis Memoriae" (now published by Cathedral Music) and a Prelude and Fugue in E minor. Apparently he preferred playing orchestral music, which he transcribed at sight, rather than music actually written for the organ. With the turn of the century, however, the market for his larger choral-orchestral pieces was declining while good organ music could always be sold. His by then rusty skills as a performer stood him in good stead and between 1894 and his death in 1924 he amassed a considerable production including five sonatas, several large-scale recital pieces and a number of sets of smaller voluntary-style works. Of his two sets of Preludes and Postludes (1907 and 1908) the most ubiquitous single piece, at least on record, is the last of the second set, but the first set, recorded here, is perhaps more inspired as a whole and generations of organists have seized upon it gratefully for service use. It is not music that grabs you by the throat, as some of Stanford’s Irish Rhapsodies and large-scale choral pieces can, but you realise after a time that only a true composer could have written music which so unfailingly does the right thing. It’s music you can trust.

The organ loft does not appear to have formed part of Bridge’s curriculum (he was a very fine viola player) but he was too consummate a craftsman to write ineffectively for any medium. Most of his organ works, including the present group, are early pieces (though he returned to the instrument at the end of his life), belonging to the period in which elegance, charm and fine workmanship predominated – long before the radical turn which began with the Piano Sonata of 1921-4. Even so, they brought a breath of fresh air to many a parish church and, such is the innate conservatism of the organ world, may yet do so today.

This recording was the last to be made in Hereford Cathedral before the recent (2004) restoration of the organ. Oddly enough, the first recording to be made following the previous (1978) restoration also contained the Parry "Little Organ Book" piece, as part of an all-Parry recital by Peter Dyke’s predecessor Roy Massey (a Vista LP, VPS 1086). At the outset the two performances sound remarkably similar; the tempo is the same, Parry’s clearly-marked phrasing is scrupulously observed by both organists and the registration seems identical. But as the music proceeds there are two differences; one is that Massey allows the music to move forward more urgently in the central part of the piece, the other is that he changes stops more often. Already at the fifth bar he introduces a new colour while Dyke proceeds without a change. While it is true that such a simple piece can be effective on a small organ with a limited number of stops, when you have all the resources of the Hereford Cathedral instrument to hand, it seems a pity not to use them.

One the whole, I have to take this as symptomatic of a certain lack of boldness on the part of Peter Dyke, something of which Massey certainly cannot be accused – the instrument leaps to life in his hands. We are allowed a brief but glorious outburst of tuba stop in the Brewer but in general Dyke seems afraid to let the organ roar its guts out, to the detriment of some of the Stanford and Bridge pieces. It’s all very tasteful but a bit polite.

Nor does the recording help. The organ, ecclesiastical reverberation and the human ear are strange bedfellows. If you sit half-way down a reverberant but acoustically well-calculated Cathedral or Church, the organ sound is before you while the reverberation surrounds you, and yet the human ear manages to sort it out, allowing you to hear the organ with complete clarity even while the echoes of it are swirling all around you. If you put a pair of microphones in place of the human ears, they will hear the same things as your ears, and if you listen to the result on headphones you will get the same effect: the organ before you, completely clear, with the echo all around. But if you listen to this same recording on the loudspeakers of your sitting-room, you will hear the original organ sound and its echoes all in front of you, your ears will be powerless to separate the two things and you will hear smudged harmonies and a confused melodic line.

There would seem to be two ways round this. In the first place, the composer should write in such a way that the music remains clear even in an acoustic which has a long reverberation period (i.e., calculating the echo as a built-in part of the musical effect). It would appear from this disc that Bridge was not able to do this, while Stanford and some of the "Little Organ Book" composers were. The Stanford pieces are totally clear, the Bridge ones are often confused. (Indeed, the Bridge pieces come off best in a smallish Church without too much reverberation, while Stanford can seem rather arid in such circumstances):

In the second place, the engineers should place their microphones with a view to what the effect will be when replayed through loudspeakers, rather than simply reproducing what they hear. Basically, I suppose this means recording closer up. The Massey Vista disc sounds clear to a fault on headphones, but truly magnificent over loudspeakers. The more distanced Lammas recording sounds rather mushy. I don’t want to say it is bad, but anyone seeking evidence that recording techniques have declined over the last 25 years will find grist to his mill in Hereford.

In conclusion, then, this is a nice disc which might have been something more than that. There are useful notes and full specifications of the organ.

Christopher Howell

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