William WOLSTENHOLME (1865-1931)
Concert Overture No.2 in G major, Op.61 (1907) [10:21]
Serenata in A (1900) [5:17]
Scherzo in B flat (1912) [6:31]
Romanza Op.17 No.1 (1900) [5:19]
Allegretto Op.17 No.2 (1900) [3:16]
Fantasia in E major, Op.33 No.1 (1901) [12:34]
Allegretto scherzando (c.1908) [5:26]
Epilogue (1913) [6:53]
Cantilène in A flat major (c.1905) [6:28]
Die Frage (The Question) (1895) [4:28]
Die Antwort (The Answer) (1895) [4:01]
Finale in B flat major (1895) [6:41]
Michael Harris (organ)
rec. 2-3 June 2010, Christ Church, Port Sunlight. DDD
PRIORY PRCD1047 [78:28]

William Wolstenholme has been ill served by the recording industry: there are - not including the present disc - only seven of his works available in the current Arkiv CD catalogue. In fact, I cannot recall being at any organ recital or church service in recent years when his music was played.

I have been a Wolstenholme fan ever since hearing the late Charles MacDonald playing the Finale in B flat on the organ of St. Olave’s Church, Marygate, York. This was over thirty years ago. It was subsequently recorded on a compilation of organ music from churches in that city. Many years later I enjoyed Dr. John Kitchen’s performance of the Organ Sonata No. 1 in F major played on the organ of Coats Memorial Church, Paisley, Scotland (Priory PRCD 805).

A brief note on the composer’s life and work may be of interest. Wolstenholme was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on 24 February 1865. He was blind from birth and was educated at the Worcester College for the Blind Sons of Gentlemen. He showed considerable promise as a musician and impressed Henry Smart who agreed to take him as a pupil. Alas, Smart died before lessons began. He was duly trained in music by Dr William Done of Worcester. He also studied the violin under Edward Elgar. He appeared at a Worcester Philharmonic Society in a performance of the Mendelssohn G minor piano concerto. In 1887 Wolstenholme went up to Oxford University where he later graduated as a Bachelor of Music.

In 1888 he was appointed organist and choirmaster of St Paul’s Church, Blackburn and began to consolidate his position as a teacher, recitalist and improviser. Fourteen years later he accepted the post of organist at All Saint’s Church Norfolk Square, Paddington and afterwards at All Saints, St. John’s Wood. In 1908 he undertook a major concert tour of the United States. This secured his ‘international’ reputation. William Wolstenholme died in 1931.

Although he is primarily regarded as a composer of organ works, his catalogue includes choral music including a cantata, Lord Ullin's Daughter, for soloist, chorus and strings, numerous anthems, madrigals, song cycles and a number of detached pieces for piano, harp, mandolin, violin, viola and oboe.

Stylistically, he has been referred to as the ‘English César Franck’. Although this may be unfair to both composers it is a reasonable rule of thumb and gives the listener a good idea of the kind and quality of music to expect. It is also possible that he can be bracketed with Alfred Hollins and Basil Harwood.

The recital gets off to a great start with the fine Concert Overture No.2 in G which was dedicated to Roger Ascham, one-time Municipal Organist of Port Elizabeth in South Africa. This is written in a ‘loose’ sonata form and manages to balance a serious ‘first subject’ with a lyrical and lighter second. It is a well written work that showcases the composer’s style and achievement. This is a good place to begin to explore this music.

The Serenata is a little more ephemeral, but even here Wolstenholme shows his fine melodic skill and ability to create an enchanting piece. The Scherzo in B flat is neat and attractive and uses the tonal colours of the organ to good effect. The Romanza has a lovely, sustained tune that epitomises its title. This music is not ‘churchy’: it is quite simply a ‘love-song’. The following ‘Allegretto’ from the same set of pieces is a nicely balanced little number that certainly charms. However, there is nothing ‘slight’ about the Fantasia in E, Op.33 No. 1. This is long, involved and complex exploring a variety of moods and instrumental registrations. The work is cast in four parts, with a ‘vigorous opening motif’ followed by a lovely ‘andante espressivo’ showcasing an oboe melody. There follows a contrasting maestoso section before an ending in the form of a competent but never academic, fugue. It is possibly the most important work on this CD.

The ‘Allegro scherzando’ has shades of Elgar about it whilst the Epilogue explores slightly deeper waters. It’s well balanced and progresses from a dissonant opening chord which is followed by an impressive ‘allegro’ before giving way to an adagio section. The composer juxtaposes both harmonic and contrapuntal resources in this remarkable but quite short work.
The Cantilene in A flat is another example of Wolstenholme’s attractive ‘intermezzos’. These combine interest with superb craftsmanship and a greater depth than the genre usually demands.

The composer’s ‘greatest hit’ is probably the bipartite work Die Frage & Die Antwort. I have come across the sheet music dozens of times in second-hand bookshops – in both organ and piano formats. And there is a sad tale to this heart-easing work. Michael Harris relates that both pieces were written for Wolstenholme’s fiancée Maud Baldwin. They were composed in 1895. Sadly, the marriage was never to be: her family circumstances prevented the union. Neither she nor the composer was subsequently to marry. This is a truly beautiful work that becomes all the more poignant on hearing the story behind it. The original ‘question’ was quite obviously ‘answered’ with an emphatic ‘Yes!’

The last piece in this comprehensive retrospective of William Wolstenholme’s music is the stunning Finale in B flat. This is not a ‘finale’ in the Vierne sense: it is not quite so virtuosic. Yet, it makes an excellent recessional voluntary. It was dedicated to Alfred Hollins.

Michael Harris is Organist and Master of the Music of St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. He is also an academic at the Ian Tomlin School of Music in Napier University in that city. On this CD he is ‘out of area’ playing the excellent Henry Willis II organ at Christ Church, Port Sunlight which is on the banks of the Mersey. The full specification for this instrument is given in the liner-notes. Organ enthusiasts will be delighted to know that this organ is the only surviving four manual instrument by that particular builder to remain in its original form – apart from the addition of a modern blower. It was extensively restored between 2005 and 2008 by Henry Willis and Sons.

My only niggle is that the programme notes did not give the dates of all the pieces played: I was able to find this information on-line quite easily.

This is an excellent new CD that fills a major gap in the repertoire of British organ music. All of these works deserve to be played in recitals and given as voluntaries at church services.

Finally, nearly a hundred years ago Harvey Grace wrote about William Wolstenholme as follows: [His] music is pre-eminently a cheerful one. His compositions have a healthy ring about them, and also much of the flavour of old English songs and dances ... While he never sounds a very deep note, his skimming over the surface is done so gracefully that one feels [disinclined] to complain.” Grace further notes that it is a ‘striking fact that the man who has composed the most uniformly happy organ music of today is one whose life has been spent in total darkness.” It is a good summary of the music presented in this CD.

John France

This is an excellent new CD that fills a major gap in the repertoire of British organ music.