The organ at Lichfield has an interesting history. Essentially
the work of William Hill dating from 1884, but interestingly
containing a considerable amount of pipework from a previous
instrument by the remarkable George Holdich, it was rebuilt
in 1974 by Hill, Norman and Beard. The latter rebuild, although
typical of work at the time, was controversial in its neo-baroque-ing
of some sections, (notably the Choir) and the replacement of
the Hill pneumatic action with a electro-pneumatic system. The
results of the latter decision reputedly reduced the then Cathedral
organist, Richard Greening to tears when he appreciated what
his judgement had cost the instrument. It was substantially
rebuilt in 1999-2000 by Harrisons, returning something of its
pre-1974 character - though not the pre-1974 action. The aural
result is grand, improbably English, and desperately deserving
of a better acoustic than that afforded by Lichfield's marvellous
13th/14th century Cathedral, the remarkable dryness being a
result of the peculiarities of the local stone.
Philip Scriven, the new Cathedral Organist has one of
the more unusual CVs in the English circuit. After his British
education at Cambridge and the RAM, he went first to Vienna
to study choral conducting, then to the Juilliard School in
New York to study orchestral conducting. I expected great things
therefore from his music-making on the present release.
Unfortunately I was consistently disappointed despite
Scriven's immense virtuosity. The first problem is one of programming.
There are simply too many short pieces, (loud/soft/loud/soft
etc etc), with too little substantial repertoire. Secondly,
the repertoire, while working well on the organ, is hardly the
optimal literature to show it off - not a note of 19th century
English music. Certain English Cathedral organs handle French
Romantic/20th century literature better than others; apart from
Gloucester and Blackburn think also of the Father Willis (e.g.
Lincoln) and T.C. Lewis (e.g. Southwark) instruments; Lichfield
however is too 'smooth'. Thirdly, Scriven's playing lacks identity
and is too often wooden. The Ives is curiously humourless, and
the Franck lacks unity while the outer sections are far too
'quaver for quaver' for the 9/8 time signature. Readers might
like to listen to Jeanne Demessieux on the disc I reviewed last
week to appreciate the difference, it’s not simply a question
of tempo! Elsewhere Transports de joie is too quick,
especially the last section, to appreciate the harmonic progressions
essential in Messiaen's writing. This is real 'electric action'
organ playing for me. And, if you MUST play the Barber on the
organ, please play it on an organ in an acoustic and with a
larger variety of string colour than is available here.
The booklet is substantial, but contains an error, Duruflé
died in 1986 and not 1981 as stated.
I appreciate completely that the genre of 'bookshop'
CD has to have a certain amount of tourist-appeal. However this
can be done far more cleverly than it is here. There is too
much French music, played with too little flexibility on an
organ which inhabits a different ethos. Other listeners may
be astonished at my criticisms citing, rightly, the technically
flawless, and sometimes exciting playing of Scriven. But in
an age when the organ CD market is swamped more than ever before,
one has to offer so much more in order to make a really distinctive