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Variations on America
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
Preamble (For a Solemn Occasion) (1949, arr. for organ 1953) [5:31]
Charles IVES (1874-1954)
Variations on ‘America’, S140 (1891-92, additions c.1909-10, revised c.1949) [8:51]
Adeste Fidelis in an Organ Prelude, S131 (1898/c.1903) [4:11]
Fugue in E flat major, S136 (c. 1898)* [5:04]
Fugue in c minor, S135 (c.1898)* (Edited by John Kirkpatrick and Charles Krigbaum [3:31]
Henry COWELL (1897-1965)
Hymn and Fuguing Tune No.14 for Organ (1962)* [7:16]
William Grant STILL (1895-1978)
(1962) [4:38]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Prelude and Fugue in b minor (1927)* [8:23]
Wondrous Love, Op. 34, Variations on a shape-note hymn. For Richard Roeckelein. (1958) [8:23]
Stephen PAULUS (b. 1949)
Triptych (2000): Like an Ever-rolling Stream; Still Be My Vision; As if the Whole Creation Cried** [14:40]
Iain Quinn (Organ of Coventry Cathedral)
rec. Coventry Cathedral, 21-23 January 2008. DDD.
* premiere recording; ** premiere commercial recording
CHANDOS CHAN10489 [71:16]
Experience Classicsonline

Ian Quinn’s new recording follows earlier forays into Russian (Tsar of instruments, CHAN10043) and Czech music (CHAN10463). Christina Antoniadou welcomed the Russian CD, though she thought much of the playing far from totally committed - see review. At least one other reviewer agreed that the music needed more persuasive advocacy. Similarly, the Czech collection was generally welcomed as reliable and worthy, though hardly likely to set the world on fire, a description, damning with faint praise, which, I fear, also applies to the new CD. Perhaps part of the problem stems from my expectations of fireworks; apart from the title piece, the music here is mostly quiet and contemplative, with just too little variety for my liking.

This new CD takes its title from Charles Ives’ variations on the tune known in the USA as America and on the UK side of the pond as God Save The Queen. It used to be the preserve of two great but very different American organists, Virgil Fox and E Power Biggs; though neither of their recordings appears to be currently available, there’s a fascinating rip-roaring clip on Youtube in which a flamboyantly-clad Fox tears through the work in fast order. British organists, too, have made recordings of it, including a Simon Preston version on Argo, albeit recorded on an American organ, briefly reissued on 421 731.

There’s a Naxos recording of a wind-band transcription (8.570559: ‘polished but too unyielding’ - see review) and another of William Schuman’s orchestrated version (8.559083), but the organ recordings currently available all stem from Europe: as well as the new recording by Iain Quinn, there’s a version from Philip Scriven (Regent REGCD210, Lichfield Cathedral organ), one from Hans-Ola Ericsson on BIS-CD510, and Gillian Weir on Priory PRCD866. Like Quinn, Ericsson’s recital also includes Adeste Fidelis and Copland’s fairly well-known Preamble.

To say that Ives does interesting things with the tune would be an understatement. Though I’m not a great fan of Ives’ more aleatoric works, the original organ version of America has always appealed to me, though it isn’t to all tastes. An organ-playing and organ-loving colleague once gave me a recording which contained this work because he just couldn’t stand hearing it. If I have any reservations about Quinn’s performance, it is that he doesn’t make the music sound quite outrageous enough, though I wouldn’t want him to pull it about as Virgil Fox does. Quinn takes more than a minute longer than Fox; the ideal tempo and manner of performance would probably lie somewhere between the two. Unless and until Sony/BMG decides to reissue the Biggs recording, Quinn will do as well as any. For more information about the Biggs version, see Scott Mortensen’s survey of recordings available at the time of writing in 2006.

Preceding the Ives we have Copland’s Preamble for a Solemn Occasion in the composer’s own organ arrangement of the orchestral original. It makes an appropriate opening to the programme in Quinn’s performance. Its comparative conventionality offers an excellent contrast to the unconventional work which it precedes.

By comparison with America, the Ives works which follow are comparatively conventional - in fact, they’re rather meditative, not the sort of thing one associates with Ives. But neither is his First Symphony, which sounds more like the work of Dvořák. As Paul Serotsky puts it, ‘Charles Ives was both a pillar of the community and a vandal’. These three pieces belong more to the pillar than to the vandal. I wouldn’t call any of them essential listening, though I’m pleased that the two early Fugues have been recorded for the first time. They would make useful postludes for a service on a solemn occasion. Iain Quinn’s notes make a case for regarding Adeste Fidelis as quintessential Ives, but it’s rather special pleading.

Some of Cowell’s eighteen fuguing tunes for other instruments and combinations have been recorded, but this is the first recording of his sole work for organ in that genre. Cowell had something of a reputation as an enfant terrible, with works designed to be played by the fist or on the innards of a piano, but, like the three early Ives works, this is placid and rather restrained music, evocative of the puritan tradition from which the fuguing tunes grew. Once again I’m glad that a previously unrecorded work is now available though I can’t imagine being over the moon to hear it repeatedly.

Still’s Reverie is another quiet piece, but one which was more to my liking in Quinn’s appropriately contemplative performance. If you haven’t previously encountered the music of William Grant Still, Chandos have already done him proud with recordings of his Song of a New Race and Afro-American Symphony - sample excerpts from these on a 2-for-1 collection, American Classics (CHAN241-23) or, better still, the parent CDs, CHAN9226 (Song of a New Race with music by William Dawson and Duke Ellington) and CHAN9154 (Afro-American Symphony with Duke Ellington’s wonderful Suite The River). Unfortunately, Chandos have also chosen to couple Ellington’s The River with his Harlem, Solitude and Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony on CHAN9909; you’ll want this too, thus involving some awkward duplication.

The Naxos recording of the Afro-American Symphony (8.559174) avoids any duplication; it’s coupled there with his In Memoriam and Africa. I’m enjoying listening to that recording as I write - I intend to include it in my next Download Roundup. The performance is almost as good as Järvi’s on Chandos and the other works are well worth hearing. See John France’s appreciative review (“a great CD”) for further details about the music and the composer.

The two Barber pieces, one of them receiving its first performance, are attractive and well performed, but neither is exactly memorable.

Stephen Paulus’s Triptych, which ends the programme, is listed as the first commercial recording. Of all the pieces here which are new to the catalogue, this struck me as the most worthwhile: it seized my interest at the end of a CD which I didn’t generally find very impressive and Iain Quinn’s performance is suitably big-boned to match. The first section brings out the full power of the Coventry organ and of Chandos’s excellent engineering, the second evokes a still vision and the third, with its echoes of Messiaen, deposits us out of God’s blessing into the warm sun, as the Elizabethan proverb has it. The point of the proverb is the awareness of having moved from the sacred to the profane, in this case from meditation back into the suffering world.

The recording is good throughout. Ian Quinn’s own notes are informative and readable and the booklet also contains the full specification of the Coventry Cathedral organ, though not the registration of each piece, which would have been helpful. If only the music had been more varied and the performances a tad more enthusiastic.

Brian Wilson 


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