Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929 – 1988)
Et Resurrexit Op.49 (1966) [17:23]
Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes Op.72 Nos.4-6 (1975) [12:25]
Missa de Gloria Op.82 ‘Dublin Festival Mass’ (1980) [40:12]
Greg Morris (organ)
rec. Blackburn Cathedral, Lancashire, England 26-27 April 2009
NAXOS 8.572601 [70:10]
First a confession. When I requested this disc of music by Kenneth Leighton I assumed that the Missa de Gloria was going to be a choral work. As those more knowledgeable than I will already know it is in fact an extended solo organ work based on the 12th Century chant for Easter Day found in the Sarum rite.
The rehabilitation of Kenneth Leighton’s music on compact disc in recent times has been one of the most gratifying. I suspect that on his death in 1988 the received wisdom was of an academic who composed. But with discs such as this and the series of orchestral works on Chandos in particular he is emerging from the shadow of that faint praise as a composer of real and enduring stature. As will be clear, I was familiar with none of these works before receiving this disc but what a fabulous discovery it has proved to be. On every level, musically and technically, I have rarely enjoyed a recital of organ music more. The organ of Blackburn Cathedral seems ideally suited to the sinewy power of Leighton’s writing and organist Greg Morris produces a bravura display of thrilling impact. Credit too to producer David Gibbs and engineer David Hinitt who have struck an ideal balance between the visceral excitement of a big instrument playing at full tilt but placing in a church acoustic without losing internal detail. It really is one of the finest recordings of an organ I have heard in a long time.
A quick trawl through the catalogue shows that there is a 3-disc set on Priory of the complete organ works played by Dennis Townhill but that is at full-price. So for a single disc recital and at bargain price this disc provides an ideal introduction to Leighton’s compositions for solo organ. There is a cunning through-thread to the programming here. All three works are based on germ-like material from which the works develop and evolve. This is a compositional trick that Leighton often uses but here the germ is provided by pre-existing hymn tunes in the case of the Six Fantasies or the plain song chant mentioned before in the Missa de Gloria. The use of existing sacred musical material makes these works extended latter-day chorale-preludes and part of Leighton’s genius is the seamless way he is able to fuse ancient with modern and his own powerfully individual musical identity to clearly recognisable motifs. The disc opens with the wonderfully theatrical Et Resurrexit of 1966. Organist Greg Morris provides a succinct but informative liner-note and in this he quotes Leighton’s description of the work as an attempt; “to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the resurrection”. This is a substantial seventeen minute work which is broken down into three rather dry-sounding sections; Theme, Fantasy and Fugue. Morris is excellent both in the note but more so in the performance at articulating how Leighton takes a simple four note motif which although original (I assume) has the stepwise simplicity of a chant. All too often when listening to organs I find myself unable to follow the musical argument lost as it is in a general wash of acoustic and registration. Morris is especially adept at leading the ear with his judicious use of the stops available on the Blackburn organ so that the line is never lost. There is a rather lovely picture of the organ case included in the liner – it is a modern instrument originally built in 1969 by J.W Walker and Sons but then rebuilt by Wood of Huddersfield in 2002. This is clearly an instrument in excellent condition – the reeds are excitingly plangent but in tune with the pedal powerful and full but without that annoying non-specific pitch ‘tubbiness’ that afflicts so many organs. Time and again throughout the disc Morris is excellent at exploiting the entire dynamic range available to him which makes for compelling listening whether loud or soft. Another facet of Leighton’s technique which impresses me so much is the way he is able to use rather academic processes in his work without sacrificing their emotional or musical impact. On a very simplistic level I hear this work as the progression from doubt to certainty or indeed death to resurrection. There is a cumulative movement towards the final thrilling pages which is both utterly convincing and very moving. Two other features of Morris’s playing that particularly impressed me; his gradation of dynamics is both very skilled and very subtle. Not for him the simple dynamic extremes. This is of particular use when Leighton builds a movement over several minutes – by pacing his dynamics so carefully he reinforces the musical architecture as well as making the final climatic release so rewarding. His other skill is an ideal sense of playing to the acoustic. He judges to perfection how long to hold or delay chords to allow them maximum impact in the performance space.
Of the Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes Op.72 only numbers 4-6 are included here. By the nature of their titles and function these are more self-contained works but they are superb in their concentrated energy and focus. Again Leighton follows a Bachian process of using the existing Hymn-melodies as a type of cantus firmus from which to develop the implications of the melody both musically and spiritually. I imagine these must be very popular works with organists – the toccata-like No.6 Hanover cries out to be used as a recessional. The main work is the big forty minute Missa de Gloria that caused my initial confusion. Unlike the Fantasies which use the hymn melodies as the clearly identifiable mother lode Leighton takes the previously mentioned Sarum Chant more as inspirational source than musical material – although at points in the score he does notate their specific use. There is an air of the austere and rapt about this work that is immensely impressive. This is one of those rare and rather wonderful pieces that is at once both ancient and modern. Leighton’s musical language sits on the cusp between chromatic tonality and serial modernism. The level of dissonance is high but this gives the music a flashing brilliance that is very compelling. Yet at the heart of the work is a devout sense of meditation and faith that belongs to a much earlier age. Again, I was struck by the parallels that Leighton achieves by the fusion of the music of the chant with the spirit of the text of the various sections of the mass. I would see this work as an extended sequence of mediations on the text of the liturgy set to the music of the Mass. Again enormous credit to Morris for the sustained concentration of his playing. In normal circumstances I am not a huge aficionado of organ music but I have been thoroughly converted by the conviction of the playing here. It goes way beyond simple technical address – which Morris clearly possesses in spades – to something that transcends the ‘how’ of playing and gets to the essential ‘why’. Much of this music is joyful without being light-hearted, ecstatic without being light-headed. If this music makes such an impression on disc in live performance by Morris it must be overwhelming.
Naxos have a winner of a disc here and more to the point a winning team of exceptional performer, instrument cum location, and production team. It is to be hoped that this will lead to further Leighton discs and indeed to more recitals of the 20th French and English music mentioned in Morris’s biography.
Naxos have a winner of a disc here.