This was actually the first disc of John Ellis’s music to appear.
The second was of songs for voice and organ which came out in
2002 on the Dunelm label (DRD0194 - see review)
which is now part of the Divine Art group.
John Ellis studied medicine in Manchester specialising in paediatrics.
Like so many doctors, he discovered early on that music grabbed
him just as much as medicine. It is no surprise then to find
that he has been a church organist and composer for most of
his life. Organ music and songs have been his predominant interest
but he has recently had performed an enchanting flute sonata.
I should declare that both John and I are members of the Lakeland
Composer’s Group and we have known each other for some time.
I have got to know some of his music quite well and conducted
some of his church music and he has played some of my music.
Even so this disc had a few surprises for me.
St. Ann’s Manchester is a Georgian (sometimes called Renaissance)
church of 1712 which is in the city centre. It has a 1730 organ
situated in the north-west gallery having been located there
at its 1887 restoration. Its full history is given in the booklet.
The composer writes about the music but the authorship of the
rest, including the profiles and organ history, is anonymous.
The disc opens with what is the longest and in many ways the
most sophisticated work on the disc. It’s a very fine ‘Allegro
and Passacaglia’ in which the link between the two sections
is that the ‘Tema’ used in the latter is derived from the opening
bars of the former. This truly is organist’s music and could
only have been composed by an organist. Although the composer
writes about key, G major here, it is not an entirely tonal
composition but inhabits a hinterland of tonalities. These eventually
pull together into a sort of Howells-like language without being
in any derivative. The lovely Pastorale in B has been described
as “unmistakably English” as it strolls, often modally through
“a variety of keys”. A suitable pre-service preamble.
A similarly nebulous and highly chromatic tonality can be heard
in the ‘Meditation on the Coventry Carol’ which highlights the
painful background to the famous text. I can’t say that I go
much on the ‘Positive Krummhorn’ stop selected for the main
melody but Ellis wanted its curious noise to denote ‘Herod,
the king in his raging’.
The Whitsun plainchant hymn ‘Veni Creator’ is a very beautiful
and popular melody and has been used as the basis of masses
and motets and variations ever since the early Middle Ages.
Ellis’s variants are short - possibly too short to really get
their point across. Even so they never outstay their welcome
and instead offer the organist a chance to show off which Ronald
Frost most certainly does, I especially liked variation 4 with
its 8ft swell flute and 4ft flute on the pedals. The full organ
specification is given in the excellent booklet notes on page
‘Rockingham’ is the tune for ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’.
This is set unremarkably and simply using the clarinet stop
coupled to 4 foot pedals. Ellis calls it a meditation which
really is a sort of written out improvisational doodle - something
organists must do regularly.
The ‘Three Hymn Tune Voluntaries’ are similar stock-in trade
pieces. It was a neat and original idea to turn the melody ‘Seelenbräutigam’
into a French-style musette. The tune Kings Lynn which makes
up the third piece was collected by Vaughan Williams for the
English Hymnal which with its bold chords and tuba stop could
also serve as a recessional voluntary. Talking of which the
‘Three Short Voluntaries’ were written, during a church service
apparently, a dull sermon I suspect. They would be suitable
for ‘the reluctant organist’ in so far as they are undemanding
if somewhat unmemorable in the case of number one, the ‘Chorale’.
The little pieces serve a purpose which organists have to do
for much of their life. In fact the second one, ‘Air’ has an
irresistibly French accent which is quite haunting.
The composer readily admits that the ‘Suite in A’ subtitled
a ‘Divertimento’ is “lighter music”. The same could be said
of the ‘Concert Waltz’ composed the following year except that
the latter has a few more serious moments in its extended scenario.
Light music for organ is not common. Ronald Frost, superb and
committed throughout, makes the suite sparkle with such delightful
colours that it made me wish that Ellis might one day orchestrate
the work. It falls into three brief movements of which the third,
a fleet-footed Scherzino, especially caught my imagination.
The disc ends with another hymn-based variations-cum-fantasia.
This one is on the medieval theme ‘Orientis Partibus’, known
in the old ‘Hymns Ancient and Modern’ as ‘Soldiers of the cross
arise’. John Ellis retains the melody’s original modality and
its rousing quality with the full organ, complete with a fine
tuba stop, bringing the recital to a fine conclusion.
I have much enjoyed exploring John Ellis’s organ music some
of which is available in print through ‘Fagus-Music’. It has
charm, it is practical and is suitable for recital work or the
Sunday-by-Sunday routine. The music is beautifully performed,
recorded and annotated. Even for non-organists it would be well
worth searching out.
see also review
of Volume 2
John ELLIS (b. 1943)
Music for Organ: Volume 2: Variations on Picardy
(2005); Scherzo-Fantasie (2002; Festive Voluntary (2006);
Two Hymn-Tune Preludes (2000); Toccata (2002); Minuet (2002);
Three Pieces for Organ (2003); Organ Symphony (2009)
Robin Walker (organ)
rec. Bolton Parish Church. No date given
DIVINE ART DIVERSIONS DDA25087 [67:04]