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Sounds Spontaneous: Improvisations through the Church's Year
Advent (Veni Emmanuel) [5'30] (Archer)
Advent (Creator alme siderum) [1'26] (Bednall)
Christmas (Noel Nouvelet) [4'47] (Archer)
Epiphany (O Magi venient) [3'01] (Archer)
Candlemas (Ave Maris Stella) [3'28] (Bednall)
Lent [2'50] (Bednall)
Passiontide (Pange Lingua) [1'29] (Archer)
Palm Sunday [3'12] (Archer)
Maundy Thursday (Ubi Caritas) [3'10] (Bednall)
Good Friday (Passion Chorale) [3'53] (Archer)
Easter (Victimae Paschali) [13'45] (Bednall)
Ascension (Llanfair) [8'01] (Archer)
Pentecost (Veni Creator Spiritus) [6'11] (Archer)
Trinity (O Lux Beata) [2'17] (Archer)
Corpus Christi (Vexilla Regis) [1'56] (Archer)
All Saints (Mount Ephraim) [1'27] (Archer)
All Souls (Requiem aeternum and In paridisum) [4'51]
Christ the King (Te Deum) [5'57]
David Bednall and Malcolm Archer, organ
Rec Blackburn Cathedral, 2-3 August 2004 DDD
LAMMAS LAMM 176D [77'21]


As someone whose improvisational capabilities are strictly limited, I always admire organists who can improvise, and even more so, organists who dare commit their spontaneous creations to disc. Here, the new organist of St Paul's Cathedral, and the young acting assistant of Wells Cathedral combine to improvise their way through the church year on the 1969 Walker organ at Blackburn, recently enlarged (turbo-charged?) and rebuilt by David Wood.

The inspiration for the recording came, according to Bednall's notes, from the sequence of improvisations on the Matthew’s Gospel, which Pierre Cochereau created during Lent 1984 immediately prior to his sudden and untimely death. There, the comparison ends, may I suggest. In the recent Solstice DVD about Cochereau, Pierre Pincemaille notes that the most important aspect of Cochereau's style was his ultimately inimitable harmonic language. Only briefly does this language ever seem to pervade the creations here, Bednall's brief improvisation on Conditor alme siderum is indeed like 90 seconds of 'canned Cochereau'. Archer uses more neo-classical techniques; Flor Peeters-esque chorale preludes, the neo-French baroque treatment of Mount Ephraim; played on the Plein Jeux and not the Grand Jeux as Bednall erroneously suggests. Bednall, a disciple of David Briggs and Naji Hakim, seems more inspired by Tournemire, structurally at least, and Langlais. I must say that when Tournemire clearly is the influence, one is reminded of the frustratingly episodic nature of so much of L'Orgue Mystique when torn from a genuine liturgical context.

Moreover, and to return to the insights given to us by Cochereau, - that DVD is a must-have incidentally - George Baker comments that the first thing Cochereau taught his students when improvising was to "Modulez Modulez!". Its certainly true that harmonically he never stayed in one place for very long. Bednall especially seems too static by comparison, David Briggs has inherited the Cochereau rate of harmonic change in his improvisation style, his pupil hasn't - yet. The near-14 minute Fantasia on Victimae Paschali, - Lasst uns erfreuen cleverly introduced at the end - seems harmonically to tread water for too long, and thus eventually outstays its welcome.

In general, I find the contents of the disc a little clichéd. I noted with a smile that no fewer than three improvisations begin, alla Tournemire with the Gregorian theme played in octaves on the tutti! Lots and lots and lots of celestes abound also. In a liturgical context these things wouldn't worry us, but on a CD, played in the living room, it doesn't quite convince. One gets the feeling also that the players rely too much on the sensational effect to grab attention; I got out my stopwatch, no fewer than twenty minutes played on tutti or near-tutti registrations, often with the Imperial Trumpet coupled! Headache-stuff.

So, while I'm delighted that organists in the UK are taking improvisation seriously, I would look elsewhere if I were wanting to buy recordings of really first rate improvisation on disc. Alexander Mason's CD, on Signum from Gloucester Cathedral is well worth having for buyers looking for a British player. Otherwise, Hortus's recent recordings of Loic Mallie, - ‘Retour de Bayreuth’ especially unmissable - or Thierry Escaich for example are essential purchases.

Chris Bragg

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