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Alexander MASON Beyond the score
Organ improvisations for Whit Sunday by Alexander Mason
Variations on Veni Creator [14í05"]
Messe de la Pentecôte [21í57"]
Machaut-fantaisie [13í02"]
Suite des Danses [18í51"]
Alexander Mason (organ)
Recorded in Gloucester Cathedral 30-31 May 2000
SIGNUM SIGCD028 [68í00"]
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The organ of Gloucester Cathedral is a mighty instrument but one which is also capable of producing very delicate sounds. It was first built, by Thomas Harris, in 1661 and was subsequently enhanced by several builders. In 1999 it was significantly overhauled and refurbished and, amongst other things, a roof, which was added to the organ case in 1971, was removed in order to allow the sound to resonate around the cathedral with less restriction. This step, together with other refinements made at that time, significantly enhanced the power and tonal fullness of the organ. The recommissioned instrument was back in action in January 2000 and Alexander Mason made this recording shortly thereafter.

It is quite appropriate that Gloucester should have been the recording venue for the cathedral became something of a centre for improvisation during the time that David Briggs was Director of Music there (1994-2001). Briggs is a noted improviser, much influenced by the French school of improvisation (especially by Pierre Cochereau) and his significant input into the rebuilding of the Gloucester organ has produced an organ very suitable to Masonís style of playing.

Alexander Mason is a "local boy". He was born in Cheltenham in 1974 and was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral between 1982 and 1988. It was while at Gloucester that his interest in improvisation was first fired by hearing the work of then assistant organist, Mark Blatchly. Subsequently Mason studied improvisation for two years (from 1996) with the Dutch organist, Jos van der Kooy. This was a crucial period in his development during which he attempted, he says, "to make a style growing from the harmony of Cochereau and Messiaen and using the polyphonic methods of the modern Dutch school."

The pieces here recorded are described as improvisations for Whit Sunday, though the connections are not immediately apparent in the case of the third and fourth works on the disc. Mason sounds to have a pretty formidable technique and the excellent recording demonstrates this to the full. The recording and Masonís fertile imagination also show off excellently the wonderful range of sounds now at the disposal of any organist playing at the revamped Gloucester console. The engineers seem to have managed very successfully the notoriously tricky acoustics of the cathedral but just as much credit must be given to the organist for his intelligent use of the instrument itself and of the spaces of the building.

The 10-movement Variations on Veni Creator is a splendid opener. With the exception of the powerful, exultant final section no variation lasts longer than two minutes. However, Mason compresses a kaleidoscopically wide variety of musical devices into his improvisation. This is a very successful and resourceful piece of playing.

The Messe de la Pentecôte is more demanding fare and closer, I would say, to the sound world of Messiaen than are the Variations. The Introit is brooding and full of suspense, conveying a real sense of the mysterious power of the Holy Spirit. This is purposefully atmospheric music which builds to a massive central climax. This section of the work reminds us that the Holy Spirit is, literally, awesome. The Offertorium portrays a more beneficent Spirit. Here, a long-breathed melody on reeds is decorated by arabesques and underpinned by long, sustained, very French chordal harmonies. The fluent Elevation is a little more "traditional" in style and the notes confirmed my suspicion that there is more Dutch influence at work here rather than French. The Communion music reverts to the French school and I found it much more elusive: I found it hard to get a sense of the shape of this brief interlude. However, the propulsive, concluding Sortie in compound time is much more direct in expression. It is a thrilling and rhythmically emphatic end to the work.

As I said, the link between Whit Sunday and the remaining two improvisations is less obvious though this is not a great concern since the standard of inspiration and of execution remains constant. The Machaut-fantaisie takes as its starting point a virelai (a medieval form of chanson balladée) by Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377). It is in five sections and Mason describes the resulting improvisation as "a wide-ranging collage". The scherzo section most certainly is wide-ranging for its rhythmic figurations run right through the organ from the depths of the pedals to the highest treble reaches. The Finale with which it concludes is particularly impressive in its exploitation of the Gloucester instrument. Itís a real tour de force.

Inventive and enjoyable though the Machaut-fantaisie is I warmed much more to the Suite des Danses with which Alexander Mason ends his recital. He describes this as something of a homage to Pierre Cochereau and it consists of five movements. First comes a march, which is by turns sardonic and spooky. Next is a gently swaying Sicilienne inspired by Duruflé, followed by a hugely powerful Bolero which is the movement in which Mason was most overtly influenced by Cochereau. This gives way to a Minuet-Waltz which, as Mason remarks, has more than a little of the fairground about it before the proceedings are rounded off by an outrageous, entertaining Gigue allí Rumba in which the Gloucester organ loft is invaded by the Carnival.

All the best improvisers start off with some kind of ground plan on which they base their performance. However a successful improvisation requires a musician who has flair, experience and knowledge of a wide variety of musical styles and, above all, imagination. A first rate technique helps too! All these qualities Alexander Mason appears to possess in abundance and he surely has a bright future ahead of him as a recitalist. (At present he is Assistant Director of Music at the Chapel Royal, Hampton Court.) This release not only benefits from his excellent musicianship but also from good notes by Mason and his producer, Alistair Dixon. Furthermore, Dixon has produced a technically outstanding recording which does full justice to the Gloucester organ and which makes full use of the cathedralís generous acoustic (though the engineers are never mastered by the acoustic as can happen all too easily.) The booklet also contains a full specification of the organ.

This is a most interesting and enterprising release, which will be of great interest to organ devotees and to a wider audience, too, I hope. Recommended.

John Quinn


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