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Arthur WILLS (b. 1926)
Wondrous Machine! - Organ Works by Arthur WILLS

Carillon on "Orientis Partibus" (1976)
Song without Words (In Memoriam Sergei Rachmaninov) (1994)
Prelude and Fugue (Alkmaar) (1971)
Scherzo-Fantasy "The Ely Imps" (1994)
Wondrous Machine! A Young Person’s Guide to the Organ – Variations and Fugue on a theme by Henry Purcell* (1995)
Arioso (from Five Pieces) (1961)
Intermezzo (from Five Pieces) (1961)
Scherzo "High Hills and Stony Rocks" (1990)
Variations on a Carol (1965)
The New Millennium Rag (1999)
Postlude (1959)
Played by Jeremy Filsell on the organ of Tonbridge School Chapel
*With Arthur Wills, narrator.
Recording date 24 October 2000
GUILD GMCD 7225 [77.37]

Arthur Wills, who celebrated his 75th birthday in September 2001, was Director of Music at Ely Cathedral from 1958 to 1990. In one way it’s a pity that these recordings were not made in the organ loft where he presided with such distinction but the very fine Tonbridge instrument, built as recently as 1995, serves his music very well.

The programme chosen for this recital presents a nicely varied overview of his large portfolio of organ compositions. All the music is as accessible to the listener as it must be difficult for the performer. As you would expect from such an experienced recitalist Wills exploits the full tonal range of the organ but one never feels that the music has simply been written for display purposes.

The recital opens with a brilliant toccata, very much in the cathedral tradition, but the following piece, like much else that follows, is much more secular in character. In his notes (in which he offers entertaining asides about the background to the various compositions) Dr. Wills relates that he originally thought of transcribing Rachmaninov’s celebrated ‘Vocalise’ for organ. Eventually he decided to produce an original composition instead and the result is a highly effective piece which is, in Wills’ words, "a homage with some reference to [Rachmaninov’s] inimitable idiom."

The "Alkmaar" Prelude and Fugue was written expressly to be played at a recital on an organ in that Dutch city. Wills also relates that he envisaged the piece as a homage to the North German school of organists, including Buxtehude. The result is a commanding and testing piece which, like everything else on the disc, is dispatched with aplomb by Jeremy Filsell.

"The Ely Imps" is an atmospheric and, dare one say it, "impish" scherzo inspired by some gargoyles in the choir of Ely cathedral. Apparently it is based on a plainchant theme though this is not easy to spot. The plainchant becomes the basis for a whirling, spiralling display piece. Tremendous fun! Later on in the programme there’s another equally successful though very different scherzo. Such tours de force are obviously a Wills speciality.

The work which gives the CD its title could, perhaps be subtitled "The Organist’s Riposte to Britten". Cheekily, Wills re-cycles the title of Britten’s celebrated orchestral "guidebook". Furthermore, he uses for his material a (different) theme by the same composer, Purcell. Wills himself delivers the narration and I’m sorry to say I find this a bit of a distraction (just as the narration in Britten’s work distracts when given in its original format – which is fairly rare these days, I think). The music itself is expertly crafted to show off the full resources of the organ and is very entertaining (who could resist the perky, tongue-in cheek Rag movement?). The last three of the fourteen short sections are played without the intervention of narration and this allows an impressive build up to the full-throated finale. I’d be interested to hear the whole piece without narration.

The other substantial piece in the recital is the Variations on a Carol. The source material is a carol by Wills himself, ‘I sing the birth was born tonight’, composed in the same year, 1965. The composer describes the eleven variations as being in the "spirit of homage to French organ music." Of course, given Jeremy Filsell’s well-known affinity with the French repertoire, the work is in particularly safe hands here. Certainly these Variations are highly effective and also very enjoyable to hear. They build to a tumultuous and exciting conclusion.

To conclude, two splendidly entertaining short pieces. The New Millennium Rag is built on three well-known hymn tunes although Wills disguises them expertly. It is an infectious encore piece, delivered here with the appropriate degree of panache by Filsell. The exuberant Postlude is in a similar vein to the opening Carillon and closes the programme with a suitable flourish.

This is a splendid 75th birthday tribute to Arthur Wills. It is probably an indication of the respect in which he is held amongst fellow organists that the list of sponsors of the project who are credited in the notes includes at least two other British organists. Jeremy Filsell plays the entire programme with a virtuosity which is seemingly effortless and he conjures some exhilarating timbres and sonorities from the Tonbridge organ. The recorded sound is first rate. This disc will give great pleasure to "organ buffs" and to a wider audience, too, I hope. Recommended.

John Quinn

See also review by Hubert Culot


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