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Dignity and Impudence
Lynnwood Farnam (1885-1930)

Toccata on O Filii et Filiae [2:18]
Christopher Steel (1938-1991)
Six Pieces Op. 33 (1967) [15:01]
Alfred Hollins (1865-1942)
Maytime Gavotte
 (1927) [4:02]; Intermezzo in D flat (1900) [6:10]
Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) arr. Malcolm Riley
Four Transcriptions for Organ
Basil Harwood (1859-1949)
Sonata No.1 in C sharp minor Op. 5 (1886) [19:16]
William Saunders (organ)
rec. 31 July–1 August 2007, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol
REGENT REGCD270 [67:33]
Experience Classicsonline

 

I had not come across the Canadian composer Walter Lynnwood Farnam until hearing this CD. Yet this work is a great concert-opener. Based on a tune called ‘O Filii et Filiae’, first published in a seventeenth century hymn book, it exploits some fine virtuosic writing and use of registration. I agree with the author of the sleeve-notes, Dr Michael Nicolas, that there is an air of improvisation about this piece. It is an exuberant and powerful work that possibly deserves a place in the list of popular ‘toccatas,’ the only problem being that it is a touch short – lasting only just over two minutes.

I cannot now recall just where I first heard Christopher Steel’s Six Pieces for Organ. I think it was a church in the West End of Glasgow. But I do remember being seriously impressed and rushing out to buy the music. I hasten to add that they were and are still well beyond my playing! They seemed to be so different from much of the organ music that was being played at that time – whether it was Messiaen or The Village Organist! These are moody – sometimes almost smoochy numbers - which somehow seem out of place in a church. The six pieces are: Intrada, Flourish, Nocturne, Dance, Meditation and Postlude. The heart of the work is in the third and fifth movements. This is a sophisticated piece that defies categorisation. The movements are consistently interesting and are often extremely beautiful. I note that Steel wrote much music for a variety of media including seven symphonies and chamber music. It would be an interesting by-way to explore.

Alfred Hollins wrote a great deal of fine organ music, much of it being frankly popular in style. The Maytime Gavotte and the Intermezzo in Db are an excellent introduction to his art. Both of these pieces are more at home in the concert hall than in church. Both pieces reveal Hollins as a master craftsman. Maytime Gavotte nods to an earlier age of music although the melodies owe more to the ‘light music’ of the early twentieth century. The Intermezzo is quite an involved little work that finds its inspiration in some of Vierne’s quieter moments. It is actually quite lovely.

Percy Whitlock wrote a large amount of high quality organ music – so I am not too sure why William Saunders has chosen to play some transcriptions of the composer’s orchestral pieces. These four pieces have been transcribed by the doyen of Whitlock studies Malcolm Riley. The opening number – a Fanfare -  was dedicated to a local Home Guard Band in Bournemouth. To Phoebe is quieter and much more meditative: there is an almost Elgarian feel to this music. This is the sort of tune to bring a tear to a glass eye. Lovely!

I am not happy about the Elegy – which is extracted from Whitlock’s masterpiece – the Organ Symphony. This is a major concerted work that deserves to be heard in its entirety. It is not well served by hearing an extract however beguiling. The last piece is the March ‘Dignity and Impudence’. Now this not only nods at Elgar – it beats him at is own game! It by and large follows in the traditional form of a march, with the big tune repeated. However the minuet theme is more complex than many marches: it combines two contrasting elements that work together exceptionally well. The trio is quite gorgeous: it is a really big tune, perhaps one of the finest that any composer has written for a march. Whenever I listen to it I cannot help feeling that if this work were well known it would be widely loved and performed. However, I must confess to preferring it in its orchestral incarnation.

Basil Harwood is probably best known for his hymn tune Thornbury “Thy hand, O God, has guided”. However he wrote much music for both choir and organ including a Second Organ Sonata and an Organ Concerto. His collected organ works fill some three CDs.

 

If the listener is looking for a comparative model for this Sonata then I guess that they must look to Rheinberger and Vierne. Yet Harwood wrote his Sonata some years before Vierne penned the first of his masterpieces. This form was particularly popular in Victorian times with essays by Alan Gray, William Wolstenholme and Edward John Hopkins. But Harwood’s First is possibly the finest.

The first movement, an Allegro-appassionato has all the formal integrity of Beethoven. It is impressive music that is well constructed and has a focused direction. Perhaps Schumann is the inspiration behind the andante although there seems to be a hymn tune lurking behind the ‘fluid harmonic style’. The final movement opens with a strong chordal passage – marked maestoso. This leads into a somewhat academic fugue and references to another hymn tune – Beata nobis gaudia. The work ends with the characteristic use of the tuba stop – but not before a moving quiet passage. It is perhaps the weakest movement of this otherwise impressive work.

It is great to hear the organ in St Mary’s Redcliffe. A complete history of the instrument and its specification are given in the CD booklet. William Saunders playing complements this fine instrument and the impressive ecclesiastical setting.

This is a great CD that explores some little known repertoire. For my money though, it is Christopher Steel’s Six Pieces takes the first prize!

John France
 

 




 


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