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Healy WILLAN (1880-1968)
Prelude and Fugue in c (1908) [11’36]
Chorale Prelude on a Melody by Orlando Gibbons (1950) [3’31]
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (1916) [19’35]
Aria from A Fugal Trilogy (1950) [2’14]
Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies (1958) [19’31]
Passacaglia and Fugue No 2 in e (1959) [12’48]
Prelude on ‘Aberystwyth’ (1956) [2’57]
Epilogue (1908) [5’22]
Patrick Wedd, organ
rec., Église Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montréal, Canada, 26-28 February 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557375 [77’39]

What an interesting character Healy Willan was. He was born in London in 1880 and grew up in the Anglo-Catholic church tradition. He emigrated to Canada in 1913, in order to take up a post - Head of Theory at the Toronto Conservatory - substantial enough for him to be able to feed his family. Canada seemingly adopted him as one of their own, and he was frequently referred to as the ‘Dean of Canadian Composers’.

Willan’s famous ‘Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue’ alone propels him into the bracket of the most remarkable composers to write symphonic literature for the organ. The piece is very well known, but never fails to make an impact, so tragic is its overall mood, so creative its writing, and so colourful its invention. Gillian Weir likens it to a Royal funeral, a wonderfully apt image. Despite its fame in English speaking countries, I was astonished to hear it, played by the great Ben van Oosten in, of all places, the St Bavo in Haarlem in October of last year. It was, nonetheless, a truly astounding performance.

Here, Patrick Wedd’s performance of the work is good; he maintains the tension well, and his control is excellent, as is his use of the organ. For me it lacks the last ounce of drama which Gillian Weir for example coaxes so tellingly out of the big Aeolian-Skinner organ in the acoustic-less First Church of Christ, Scientist in Boston on Priory PRCD 751. It’s a question of timing, of capturing the different moods of the work in a way which holds the listener. Wedd is good, Weir is fantastic.

I was interested above all though to hear what else I have been missing among the lesser known works of Willan. The Prelude and Fugue is a good piece, with an exciting build-up of tension in the slightly over-long (double) fugue and clever quotations of the first material at different points. The 2nd Passacaglia and Fugue is a late work and has much less quality than the first I feel. Just compare the endings of the two pieces! The rest of the disc is made up mostly of the shorter liturgical pieces of the sort which made up the majority of Willan’s later compositional output. These range from pleasant pre-Evensong wanderings, (‘Aria’, Christe Redemptor’ from the Preludes on Plainchant Melodies)’ to the slightly banal, (Urbs Jerusalem beata from the same). I did enjoy the Epilogue with its very English sense of drive.

The organ is rather similar to that played by Willan himself at the church of St Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto. The instrument in the Église Saint-Jean Baptiste in Montréal was built by the redoubtable Casavant firm in 1914 and restored by them in 1995.A four manual instrument of some 68 stops, with three enclosed divisions, its concept represents the interesting Canadian synthesis of French and English ideals. It contains more mixtures than most organs of its vintage, and a rather strange Positif Expressive:

16,8,8,4,4,2,II, II-V, 8 (Clarinette)

and Solo Expressive:

8 (stentorphone) 8 8 4 2 II (Clochettes) 8 (Cor anglais) 8 (Musette).

The instrument is aesthetically very well matched to Willan’s music then, but has a rather different character to the English organs on which we most often hear it played. The mixtures are for me a little hard sounding, the chorus reeds rather French (but not terribly beautiful). The best of the organ is its variety of soft 8’ colour, listen to those strings at the beginning of the Introduction! This is, it must be said a style of organ building probably unique to Canada.

Patrick Wedd plays well throughout with excellent technique and masterful control of the instrument’s resources. This is an interesting collection, and given the price is well worth having.

Chris Bragg

 

 



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