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The English Cathedral Series - Volume XIV – Southwell Minster
John COOK (1918-1984)
Fanfare [5:13]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Orpheus (1854) [11:01]
François COUPERIN (1668-1773)
Messe pour les Couvents [47:44]; (with chant by Guillaume-Gabriel NIVERS (1632-1714))

Homage to Handel (1914) [15:31]
Paul Hale (organ and cantor)
Robin Blackwell, Samuel Hucklebridge, Benedict Inman, William Inman (trebles) – in Couperin only
rec. Nave Organ of Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, 12 May 2006, 14-15 March 2007
text and translation included.
REGENT REGCD248 [79:34]
Experience Classicsonline

As this series is devoted to the organs of English Cathedrals, it is perhaps appropriate to discuss the instrument before the music or the player.
There have been organs in Southwell Minster since 1662, but the instrument used for this recording is the Quire Organ installed in its present position in 1996 by Nicolson of Malvern, partly using pipes made by that firm in 1868 for an organ in Malvern Wells. Its specification and history are summarised in the CD booklet.
The major work here is clearly the Couperin. It is one of two Organ Masses which appeared in 1689-90, and is intended for used in convents or abbey churches. The many short movements, the longest over 5 minutes but most under 2 minutes, are separated by chant. Originally that normally employed by the particular convent or abbey would have been used, but here chant by Nivers published in 1696 is applied. Any performance of this Mass is a formidable test of both organist and instrument. All too often I find myself distracted in this music by the sheer amount and complexity of the ornamentation, but although Paul Hale does not shirk the latter neither does he allow himself to appear to concentrate on it at the expense of the overall sense of the music. The timbres he coaxes from the organ seem to a non-specialist to match the composer’s requirements with pungency and sweetness as required. He also achieves what may be a first on an organ recording of also appearing as a singer in the brief lines allotted to the Cantor. There and in the chant, performed by some of the trebles of the Minster choir, I found myself surprised at the degree and type of ornamentation. Given its date and provenance, however, I assume that this would have been expected in performances of the Mass, however unlikely and even at times distracting it may appear.
I very much enjoyed the Mass, but even more the Karg-Elert. His “Homage to Handel” was written in 1914 to celebrate the composer’s election as an honorary member of the Royal College of Organists. The choice of Handel was meant to reflect the close ties between English and German music, the work appearing just before the outbreak of war. It is based on a ground bass from the Passacaglia in Handel’s Keyboard Suite No. 7. The 54 variations on this bass fall into three main sections. The composer’s instructions to the player are vivid and give a clear idea of what to expect, from Lento lugubre ed indeciso at the opening, to Imperiale e pomposo, Demonico and Trionfante e gigantica towards the end. It is a colourful and varied work, each variation short and to the point, and all with a clear sense of purpose. I have not heard any of the various alternative recordings but I certainly enjoyed this one immensely.
I got much less enjoyment from the first two works, due more to their musical quality than to any defects of performance or instrument. John Cook was born in Britain but emigrated to Canada and later to the USA. The Fanfare is based on music written for a Festival of Britain Pageant at Hampton Court. Although it does show off some of the louder stops of the organ I found it derivative and unmemorable. Its greatest virtue is that it is succinct.
Liszt’s Orpheus is a transcription of the orchestral symphonic poem which was in turn based on music written to supplement a performance of Gluck’s opera. The present transcription is by Robert Schaab, with revisions made by Liszt himself. Unfortunately these are insufficient to compensate for the loss of the colourful orchestration of the original, with its frequent use of the harp. The magic of the latter, especially as captured in Beecham’s versions, is wholly missing in this organ version. It is indeed hard to imagine how the poetic fluency of the original could ever be achieved on the organ, although Paul Hale does play with admirable flexibility when required.
All too often organ recitals can seem to the non-organist to be intended to show off the organ much more than the music. That is not the case here. The Couperin and Karg-Elert items are both substantial pieces, enjoyable and worth acquiring in these performances simply as music. In doing so you will be able also to appreciate the ability of the instrument, at least in the hands of the right player, to respond appropriately to the demands of music of very varied character. And that, presumably, is what this series is all about.
John Sheppard


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