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Adeste Fideles – Organ Music for Christmas
William T. BEST (1826-1897)
A Christmas Fantasy on Old English Carols [09:44]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Chorale: Vom Himmel hoch [00:41]
Johann PACHELBEL (1653-1706)
Chorale-Prelude: Vom Himmel hoch [03:09]
Fughetta: Vom Himmel hoch [01:50]
Johan Bernhard BACH (1676-1749)
Chorale-Prelude: Vom Himmel hoch [01:45]
Chorale-Prelude: Vom Himmel hoch BWV.738 [01:28]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Weihnachten op.145/3 [09:30]
Jean-François DANDRIEU (1682-1738)
Noël cette Journée [03:17]
Il n’est rien de plus tendre [02:16]
Louis-Claude D’AQUIN (1694-1772)
Noël X [06:56]
Pierre COCHEREAU (1924-1984) transcr. J. Filsell
Variations on “Adeste Fideles” [10:32]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
Noël Ecossais [02:43]
Jeanne DEMESSIEUX (1921-1968)
Adeste Fideles (Musette) [02:25]
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Noël Breton [03:32]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Holy Boy [03:15]
Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)
The Shepherd’s Cradle Song [03:00]
Alfred HOLLINS (1865-1942)
Christmas Cradle Song [02:52]
Garth EDMUNDSEN (1900-1971)
Vom Himmel hoch (Toccata-Prelude IV) [05:11]
Thomas Laing-Reilly (organ of St. Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh)
Concluding track: The Bells of St. Cuthbert’s Church (St. Cuthbert’s Change-Ringers. Tower Captain: Mhairi Hargreaves) [03:34]
rec. 10-12 July 2006, St, Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
DELPHIAN DCD34077 [77:50] 


Experience Classicsonline

This record arrived too late for a Christmas review. Oxonians and others who indulged in some sort of politically correct “Festival of Light” last December may feel January or February a good time of year to indulge in the guilty pleasure of an interesting and often unusual – but never “difficult” or intellectual – programme of music inspired by the event that still remains fundamental to the lives of many in the western world.

As all organists – and semi-organists like myself – know, anthologies of Christmas fare abound, and a good many pieces are common to a lot of them. Thomas Laing-Reilly has to be congratulated for mixing the odd drop of the familiar with more unusual byways. Some of these latter require more resources – from both player and instrument – than popular anthologies envisage. Furthermore, the recital has a clear shape, with Best as a curtain-raiser, followed by German, French and British groups, rounded off with a peal of bells. A further binding factor is the German Christmas chorale “Vom Himmel hoch” which dominates the German section and returns in Garth Edmundson’s Toccata.

Since the three national schools in question have developed very different organ-building characteristics, such a wide ranging programme could risk some parts sounding more authentic than others. However, the description of the St. Cuthbert’s organ reveals that, though the various actions undertaken since its installation in 1899 are tactfully described as “rebuilding”, it is essentially a 1997-8 Walker organ based on the more modern concept of doing justice to all the different schools. Moreover, with its current incumbent to play it, both organ and organist should win friends among listeners who don’t always respond to organ music.

Even very good organists can seem flatfooted in their rhythms, their performances creaking around the seams of their registration changes. We hear immediately in the W.T. Best Fantasy that Laing-Reilly knows how to set up an orchestral-sounding overall rhythmic pulse, with the many changes of colour coming in like different sections of the orchestra. Non-organists often complain that the instrument is not touch-sensitive like a piano and therefore mechanical. Laing-Reilly has the key to those little tricks of timing and articulation that almost convince you that it is touch-sensitive after all. Furthermore, the acoustics of St. Cuthbert’s Church, as recorded here, seem pretty well ideal, with enough reverberation to sound like a church while permitting everything to be heard with clarity.

Having established his credentials Laing-Reilly plays his German baroque group with due respect for the scale of the organs available to these composers – he avoids the temptation to blast out the pedal tune in the Pachelbel Prelude on the tuba – but without being afraid of going over the top within these limits. In the Bach BWV738 he makes merry with the “Cymbelstern” – recently added to the organ on his own instructions. This creates the effect of a continuous shower of silvery bells accompanying the music. I thought the Reger rather a lugubrious composition though it certainly builds up powerfully.  Unfortunately, inspiration and length in Reger often seem in inverse proportion to each other. This one is a midway case. Moreover, the insertion of “Stille Nacht” towards the end rather reminds us that nobody, so far as I know, has yet managed to write a really beautiful piece on this favourite tune.

The earlier French items are done neatly with piquant registrations. The d’Aquin is the “usual” one – out of twelve – and the piece by which most people remember him, especially now that even “Le coucou” seems to have fallen from favour. The Cochereau is an improvisation which was recorded and later transcribed by Jeremy Filsell. Laing-Reilly heard Cochereau play and recalls in his notes that he was “an awe-inspiring improviser”. We may take it that he has done everything to reproduce the effect that he heard, and there are some fantastic colours and effects towards the end. I’m afraid I feel about the earlier stages rather as I do about Reger.

The remaining French pieces are delightful, and a riot of colours, both gentle and brilliant. We are not told if the Guilmant is based on a real Scottish tune but it has all the features of one. A lovely find. The Demessieux and Langlais pieces are more in the nature of high-class doodling raised to the level of high art by their understanding of the colours of the instrument, flamboyantly realized by Laing-Reilly.

Ireland’s “The Holy Boy” was originally a piano piece, of course, but, though I am a pianist myself, I find I get more satisfaction out of playing it in the composer’s arrangement for the organ. I seem to be not alone in preferring a slightly more flowing tempo, but Laing-Reilly’s treatment is long-breathed rather than sticky and aligns the piece with the description of Ireland – by Christopher Palmer, I think – as an “epic miniaturist”. Going back to the Victorian age, the Somervell was originally a piece for contralto and piano*. Laing-Reilly does not say if this arrangement is the composer’s – maybe it’s a semi-extemporised version of his own? The filigree accompaniment is fairly elaborate at times but nothing of importance is omitted while the melody always sings warmly and clearly. The result is enchanting; rather more so, I would say, than the song in its original form. The Hollins is perhaps too similar in mood and less interesting. I suppose the composer’s Edinburgh connections decided his presence. The Edmundson Toccata does everything a noisy organ toccata should do, and Laing-Reilly has his “Cymbelstern” tinkling away again towards the end. I could personally have done without the bell-ringing on the last track, but those living within earshot of St. Cuthbert’s bells will doubtless welcome the opportunity to drive themselves mad with the things even when the real ones are silent.

Thomas Laing-Reilly has been Organist and Director of Music at St. Cuthbert’s since 1999. He read music at Edinburgh University and subsequently travelled abroad to study with Flor Peeters and Jean Langlais. While in Paris he was able to hear such legendary figures as Messiaen, Marchal and Cochereau. He later studied in the USA. He has given solo recitals in the UK, France, Denmark, Holland and the USA. He has been a lecturer at Edinburgh University since 1995 and, to judge from his scholarly but readable notes to this CD, he must be a good one. If he’s thinking of a sequel, there’s plenty more Christmas music around. Italy and the USA might get a look in next time. While, away from the Christmas season, the name of Flor Peeters reminds us that this remarkable musician has sometimes been named as one of the major 20th century organ composers, almost on a par with Messiaen. The sheer number of his works – his op. 100 alone consists of 213 choral-preludes covering the entire liturgical year – has rather discouraged systematic investigation. So there’s plenty to look at.

Disclaimer: I’m not entirely convinced that the following is necessary, but some people feel that the slightest personal connection may colour a critic’s judgement. So I will state that Thomas Laing-Reilly was a contemporary of mine at Edinburgh University. I remember him quite clearly and he even played in a performance of a Dufay Mass that I conducted. We have not been in contact during the intervening 30-odd years. I am naturally glad that I have been able to write in such glowing terms, but had stern duty required a very different review I should not have hesitated. I am quite satisfied that the only way in which these distant memories have affected the review is that, had the organist’s name not been known to me, I doubt if I should have requested a review copy of a CD of Christmas organ music at all. And I should have been the loser.

*Musicological note on Somervell. Laing-Reilly states that the original of this piece was for baritone and piano. I think this is unlikely. It was dedicated to “Mrs. Henschel” who was presumably – though I don’t actually know this – the wife of George Henschel, a baritone and a conductor. But she was also a singer in her own right. The undated Edwin Ashdown edition names on the cover, after the manner of the day, six singers who performed the song. They are all ladies. Apart from Mrs. Henschel herself, they include Miss (as she still was) Clara Butt. The song was published in four keys (E flat, F, G, A) with no indication of which might be the original. Even the highest does not go above F sharp. Obviously, we know Butt was a contralto. Such fleeting references as I can find to two of the other ladies mentioned suggests they also had low voices. 

Furthermore, the back cover of another Somervell song, published by J.& J. Hopkinson in 1892, advertises what I presume to be an earlier edition of “The Shepherd’s Cradle Song”. It is described as “Dedicated to & sung by Mrs. Henschel & all the leading Vocalists. The most successful Cradle Song of modern times”. At this stage in its life it was published in only the middle two of the four keys – F and G. So presumably one of these was the original. Unless documentary evidence exists to the contrary, then, we may fairly safely describe the song as for contralto and piano.

Christopher Howell 


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