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Healey WILLAN (1880-1968)
Organ Works

Prelude and Fugue in c (1908) [11í36]
Chorale Prelude on a Melody by Orlando Gibbons (1950) [3í31]
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (1916) [19í35]
Aria from A Fugal Trilogy (1950) [2í14]
Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies (1958) [19í31]
Passacaglia and Fugue No 2 in e (1959) [12í48]
Prelude on ĎAberystwythí (1956) [2í57]
Epilogue (1908) [5í22]
Patrick Wedd, organ
rec. …glise Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montrťal, Canada, 26-28 February 2002. DDD
NAXOS 8.557375
[77í39]


I first became aware of Healey Willanís music through a fine series of recordings of his church music for choir that Virgin Classics issued a good few years ago. However, this CD offers an opportunity to become acquainted with what appears to be a representative cross-section of his output for the organ. I say ďrepresentativeĒ since it would seem from Patrick Weddís own excellent liner-note that he has chosen here a few of Willanís most important and substantial concert works and a selection from the many shorter pieces that he wrote primarily for liturgical use.
 
The choice of the instrument on which this recital is played is interesting and apt. Almost as soon as he arrived in Canada in 1913 Willan was appointed organist at the church of St. Paul, Toronto, a post he occupied until 1921. In the year following Willanís arrival at St. Paulís the Canadian firm of organ builders, Casavant FrŤres, installed a substantial new organ there. Indeed, Patrick Wedd describes that organ as ďformidable.Ē The instrument at the …glise Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montrťal was installed just one year later, in 1915, and it seems to be of similar magnitude and tonal resource to the St. Paulís organ. So, here we have an opportunity to hear Willanís music on an organ very similar to the one that inspired at least some of these compositions.
 
The biggest and best work on this disc was undoubtedly inspired by the St. Paulís organ for the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue was composed in 1916, during Willanís period as organist there. Itís a most impressive work. The Introduction is commanding. The Passacaglia begins in sepulchral quietness on the pedals and then in the space of some seven minutes Willan takes us through no less than 18 variations. For the first five minutes or so the passacaglia is pretty subdued but Willan builds his edifice patiently and the music gradually grows in power and majesty, showing off the full resources of the organ. The last couple of minutes of this section are given over to a quiet, atmospheric chorale before we reach the concluding double fugue. This, too, is a movement that builds patiently. It sounded to me to be the work of someone who knew his Bach. The work end most imposingly. Itís a grand, ambitious piece and itís played splendidly by Patrick Wedd.
 
Many years later, in 1959, Willan wrote what might be called the Little Brother of the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue. His Passacaglia and Fugue No. 2 in E minor was dedicated to Sir William McKie, the organist of Westminster Abbey. The two had met and become close friends in 1951 and it was at McKieís instigation that Willan was invited to compose a motet for the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 - I hadnít previously known this. The structure is very similar to the 1916 work though, at under one minute, the introduction is much shorter this time - itís not a separate movement on this occasion. Again the Passacaglia begins on the pedals and this time there are twelve variations. As before, Willan is skilful in his variations and employs impressive cumulative patience in constructing the movement. As before the fugue is preceded by a subdued chorale. This is harmonically quite remote and the listener is unsure - or, at least, initially this listener was unsure - where the music is leading. The fugue is again a massive double fugue. I thought it was rather dense in places and I donít think thatís the fault of the performer. This is a fine work but Iím not sure itís quite as impressive an achievement as the Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue
 
The Prelude and Fugue in C minor is the odd piece out in this programme in that itís the only one written before Willanís emigration to Canada. It dates from 1908. It contains a powerful prelude and a substantial double fugue. From about 5:20 onwards in this performance of the fugue the pedal part is thunderous as Willan recalls the music of the prelude. The ending is majestic and this whole work constitutes an arresting start to the recital.
All the remaining pieces are shorter and were, in the main, designed for liturgical use. They are musically sensitive and would undoubtedly enhance any liturgy at which they were played. The Five Preludes on Plainchant Melodies constitute a collection but each can stand alone. The central three are all essentially reflective but the first of the set is jubilant while the concluding piece, Urbs Hierusalem beata is a majestic processional. Listening to it one can readily imagine a long High Church procession, headed by crucifer and, in a cloud of incense, a thurifer.
 
Throughout this recital Patrick Wedd is a most persuasive and skilled advocate for Willanís music. The engineers have captured the sound of the organ - and the acoustic of the church that houses it - most impressively. Though the selection has been artfully chosen with sufficient variety that one can listen to the whole disc straight through Iím not sure Iíd advocate this. The disc is perhaps one for dipping into.
 
Mr Wedd writes his notes as persuasively as he plays Willanís music and the booklet also contains a full specification of the organ.
 
Iím delighted to have encountered this disc as will anyone interested both in organ music and in the music of the Anglican Church. I just hope Naxos will now give us some of Willanís orchestral music.
 
John Quinn
 
see also review by Chris Bragg

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