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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


RECORDING OF THE MONTH

 

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Nicholas-Jacques LEMMENS (1823-1881)
Grand Fantasia in E minor (The Storm) [12:34]
Sigismond Ritter von NEUKOMM (1778-1858)

Grand Dramatic Fantasia [13:31]
Louis-James-Alfred LÉFEBURE-WÉLY (1817-1869)

Scène Pastorale [11:11]
Henry HUDSON (1854-1912)

Storm Fantasia (Life and death at St. Bernard’s Hospice) (1913) [11:51]
Samuel Gatty SELLARS (1887-?)

An Ocean Tempest (1924) [8:39]
Franz LISZT 1811-1886

St Francis of Paola walks upon the waters (arr. REGER) (1901) [10:48]
David CLEGG (1867-1923)

A Church Service interrupted by a thunderstorm [11:19]
Kevin Bowyer (organ)
rec. Blackburn Cathedral, 26-27 October 2004. DDD
REGENT RECORDS REGCD217 [79.58]


Here is some of the very best playing you are likely to hear on one of the most interesting instruments in the United Kingdom by one of the world’s hardiest and most formidable virtuosos. This recording had me fizzle with envy, frustrated that I had not the opportunity of making the recording myself.

Programmatic Music has long been used by composers from Haydn to Tchaikovsky, Bach to Beethoven. I am reminded of Bach’s wonderful description of Naumburg’s (Hildenbrandt) 32-foot organ reed: ‘Makes my music thunder so!’

So, after reading Ian Coleman’s myopic and dismissive review of ‘The Storm’ in the October 2005‘Choir and Organ’ magazine describing the works as ‘cheap programmatic sound effects’, I was determined to set the record straight. Kevin Bowyer and Gary Cole at Regent deserve better than that.

I rather like programmatic music! In fact many years ago I recorded ‘In a Monastery Garden’ (with bells) and works by Oliphant Chuckerbutty and Hugh McAmis. It became an instant best-seller and pleased many review. Rather like the BBC’s ‘Songs of Praise’, this is music that brings real enjoyment. I have already played ‘The Storm’ with great delight for two cathedral organists and other musical friends and had them hurriedly writing down catalogue numbers to go out and purchase copies for their Christmas gifts.

Long before the days of cinema and the wireless one needed to be entertained and entertain this CD does with absolute panache and impish glee. You will either smile or, like the humourless Mr. Coleman, find it all too much. Furthermore you are unlikely to hear this played as a Postlude to a church service although I can think of some who would rather enjoy it.

Nicholas-Jacques Lemmens, a grand Parisian figure, was in fact born a Belgian and gave a series of virtuoso concerts at Saint-Vincent de Paul in 1852. This Grand Fantasia in E minor has been played many times in Great Britain. I recall Simon Preston playing this stormy romp complete with wind machine to a packed and highly receptive Royal Albert Hall in 1968 at the RCO’s ‘Organ Insanity and Madness’.

Chevalier Sigismond Ritter von Neukomm studied with Haydn, taught Mozart and wrote an extraordinary 1,300 works for stage, sacred music including nine full-scale Oratorios, 48 Masses 27 Offertories, 73 Motets, five Stabat maters, symphonies and numerous instrumental works including 124 pieces for harmonium! His Fantasia, whilst (like all these works) being entertainingly pictorial, is finely crafted and Mozartean in style until the massive storm descends and playfully interrupts! He is a composer to whose work I hope to return very soon.

Louis-James Lefèbure Wely, organist of the Madeleine and Saint-Sulpice and writer of the ‘Scène Pastorale’, was one of the creators of this genre of organ music in concert. His ‘Storm Fantasia’ is one of his much loved pieces; sadly seldom played by the organists of today.

Henry Hudson wrote of his ‘Storm Fantasia’, The themes for this piece were supplied by the Rev. Canon Josef Nachen of St Bernard’s Hospice in 1910. The first phrase is that of the Psalm from the Mass for the Dying, "Libera me". This is followed by a Pastorale depicting the quiet peaceful life at St. Bernard’s. Then the brethren are heard singing the whole Psalm. Distant thunder and an increasing force of wind culminate in a heavy storm, which dies away gradually, the last phrases of the Psalm being faintly heard. The Pastorale is again played and then the Hymn "Dies Irae" the whole concluding with the faintest tone of the organ. Henry Hudson was organist of Holy Trinity, Southport.

Gatty Sellars wrote ‘An Ocean Tempest’ and was once extremely popular when as organist of both the Crystal Palace and the Kingsway Hall (*one of our favourite recording venues in the 1960s) he played it to the then Prince of Wales and assembled guests. Earlier, Sellars recorded a turn of the century Sullivan’s ‘The Lost Chord’ and Handel’s ‘Largo’ on a large (unidentified) Moller organ in the USA. In ‘The Tempest’ a graceful barcarolle precedes the ship’s bell and siren warning of an impending gale, which gradually heralds the singing of the hymn ‘Nearer My God to Thee’.. When tranquillity returns and the storm has ‘spent its force’ the now becalmed ocean closes with a tongue-in-cheek quotation from William Croft’s ‘O God our help in ages past’.

Lionel Rogg and others have attempted transcribing Liszt’s ‘St Francis of Paola walks upon the waters’ for the organ but nobody has managed to come close to the genius of Max Reger, one of the greatest transcribers as well as arguably the most important 20th century composer for organ. The lesson will have been learned by many from Gillian Weir’s unfortunate recital at the Royal Albert Hall (26 October 2005) on the flagrantly out of tune £1.9M Mander rebuild – a cipher to deal with; the front pipes still disgracefully displaying the dents and accumulated dirt from decades previous. In the present case Kevin Bowyer, with characteristic élan, weaves his way through Liszt’s delicate filigree with awesome dexterity. As is the case throughout this disc he richly colours his musical palette with inspired and discrete virtuosity.

David Clegg’s simply dreadful ‘A Church Service interrupted by a thunderstorm’ will have anyone who has sung evensong from the BCP in near hysterics. Borough Organist of Salford and organist of the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, this was especially written for the recital series at the Crystal and Alexandra Palaces at the end of the 19th century. Well, Evensong it is and following the peal of church bells ringing the change, a choleric cleric (the Vox Humana) quavers ‘O Lord Open thou our lips’ to which the choir respond with gusto ‘And our mouth shall show forth Thy praise’ and so we continue. The Angelus bell even makes an appearance at 6 and the Mother of all storms arrives (the choir gives up trying to sing the hymn). As the storm eventually subsides the hymn resumes – ‘O Saviour, Lord to Thee we pray. Whose love has kept us safe this day. Protect us through the coming night, and ever save us by thy might.’ The CD closes with the voices of the nightingale and a distant cuckoo singing their own little evensong perhaps on a distant oak and we can all safely disperse into the evening air ...

Many years ago I was recording a very large orchestra with Tom Frost. I had prepared the usual pile of Neumann microphones scattered amongst the players when Tom looked at me and gently recalled the old Mercury Living Presence Recordings using a single microphone. The principle is simple. In an acoustically friendly building you can produce not just remarkable results, but that elusive third dimension in a stereo recording. I tried from that moment onwards recording with just two or three omni-directional microphones in spaced array. Thus I discovered the joys of that extended soundstage and have never looked back. Interestingly, very many years ago (1966/67), to wide acclaim, the ground-breaking David Woodford at Cathedral Records in Eton High Street used the same principle – 2 x AKG C12A (omnis) and a ‘State of the Art’ High Speed Revox running at 15 ips.

Forty-two years of recording taught me that multiple ‘spot’ microphones inside the orchestra truncate the sound-stage; worse, you have the potential of sound waves colliding, causing aural aberrations. You have only to listen to the stereo broadcasts from the Proms on TV to audition regular examples. There are of course exceptions to the rule – Everett Porter’s extraordinary work at Polyhymnia released on Telarc and Pentatone are classic examples and there are buildings where the minimalist approach is simply not possible. Blackburn Cathedral, which is where this very fine CD was recorded, is not one of these.

I auditioned ‘The Storm’ with Kef 104s some 4 feet away, and with myself forming the third part of an uninterrupted triangle and this caused both myself and another musician listening with me some aural discomfort prompting some questions. I then took the CD up to my studio (PMC LB1 monitors) to check phasing and found the phase meter deviating to the left on numerous occasions. I emailed Gary Cole at Regent Records - whose work as producer I hasten to add, I admire enormously - and the murky culprit emerged. The recording was made with 2 x B&K 4006s (the best) but alas, and I quote, a ‘Soundfield SP422B on cardioid pattern on (the) sanctuary step’ ‘for focus’. And, there lies the problem.

There is a very simple lesson in recording. Use two or three omni-directional microphones for a large orchestra – two for an organ and if you lack focus you are either in the wrong building or you are too far away. If the orchestra sounds unbalanced, change your conductor – the conductor’s balance has to be the best! The moment you add additional microphones in a reverberant (and reflective) building you plead for difficulties. It is this sad and wretched third microphone that has reduced this recording from a 5 star to a 3 or 4 and it is a needless tragedy.

This of course has nothing to do with Kevin Bowyer who has controlled sound and inspired musical lines for as long as I can remember. With Nicolas Kynaston, Colin Walsh and the redoubtable Jane Parker-Smith, he is probably Britain’s most formidable organist and inspired technician.

Here is a CD that everyone should buy who loves the organ: it has some of the finest playing of some of the most unusually tempestuous works by some extraordinary composers (read the booklet) you will ever hear on record!

Please do not be deterred by my reservations. They are small indeed compared to this stunning instrument and some of the most vital playing you are likely to hear this year.

My recommendation? Go out and buy it now and try and forget my ill-tempered gripes because they pale in comparison to the overall result of one of the most important organ CDs I have come across in many a year. Thank heavens it is not an LP or worse a 78rpm else I would have worn it to destruction by now.

Jonathan Wearn

 

 



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