Stanford’s organ works are not a part of his output with which I am familiar. Over the years I have explored the symphonies, concertos, songs, liturgical and chamber music. However apart from a few preludes and postludes heard in church and cathedral I have not previously discovered the works presented on this CD.
Stanford was involved with the ‘King of Instruments’ throughout most of his career, and was himself an organist for many years. If we work on the basis that his composing career was from 1877 until his death in 1924, it is a fact that most of his organ works were written in the second half of this period.
The opening ‘Fantasia and Toccata in D minor’, Op.57 is the earliest organ work in Stanford’s catalogue. It was penned in July 1894 but was not published until 1902. This piece is very much in the ‘classical style’ with allusions to Bach’s ‘Fantasia and Fugue in G minor’ BWV 542 and the ‘Dorian’ Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 538. This is not a parody of Bach: Stanford has created a romantic mood derived from Mendelssohn and Brahms. The Fantasia has some powerful music but there is also a delicious middle section that exploits the softer string tones of the organ. The Toccata, which is introduced by pedal solo, becomes a veritable ‘warhorse’ as the music moves dynamically toward its massive full-organ close. This is a substantial piece that displays the organ at Salisbury to an impressive degree.
The Six Preludes were begun in 1903 and were published over the next couple of years. According to Jeremy Dibble these were ‘conceived as six essays in distinctive style-forms which could be performed separately but could also be played as a cohesive set’.
The first is ‘in [the] Form of a Minuet’. This is a quiet, reserved piece that is really a pastoral or an idyll: the ‘trio’ section is a little livelier with delightful rippling figurations. The second prelude is ‘in [the] Form of a Chaconne. There are ten variations with the ‘ground bass’ presented variously by each hand and the pedals. Prelude No.3 is a short Toccata in ternary form: the boisterous outer parts are complemented by a ‘chorale like’ trio. ‘On the Easter Hymn’ is a fine chorale-prelude on the well loved hymn ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today’. There are nods to Wagner’s Meistersinger in the progress of this piece. The fifth Prelude is ‘In [the] form of a Pastorale’. This is not some English music-revival confection and owes its inspiration to Handel and possibly the ‘Pastoral Symphony’ from Messiah. It is a beautiful, moving piece, full of the magic and reverence of Christmas and the Birth of Jesus in a manger. It is surely one of the most delightful miniatures from Stanford’s pen. The final Prelude is ‘a tranquil meditation on Tallis’s Canon for the second evening hymn ‘Glory to Thee, My God, this night’. This is ‘night music’ that is ideal for Evensong.
Each one of these ‘Six Preludes’ reveals Stanford at his best. They should be listened to at one sitting, as they are largely complementary. However any of them can be used individually for Divine Worship.
Much could, and probably should, be written about Stanford’s Five Organ Sonatas. These pieces, which were written between 1917 and 1921, are little-known to organ music enthusiasts. So far, I have had the opportunity of listening to the first two which are presented on this CD: I look forward to getting to grips with the following three. My overall impression is of highly competent and characteristic writing for the instrument. This is presented in what was probably, at the time of composing, a slightly outdated musical language. Yet this does not really matter - it is the quality and content that matter: not the stylistic provenance. I am surprised that these works are not in the general repertoire as they are often as impressive as those infinitely better-known symphonies written by Vierne and Widor.
Sonata No.1 in F major, Op.149 was completed in May 1917 and was dedicated to the composer’s old friend Alan Gray. Like all of the organ sonatas, this is in three movements. The liner-notes suggest that this work looks back to the Basil Harwood’s C sharp minor Sonata which was in turn influenced by Joseph Rheinberger.
The opening ‘allegro’ is in sonata form with a good contrast between the two principal subjects. The second movement opens with some delightful filigree passages. Later, the mood changes and becomes more aggressive. After a climax, the quieter music reprises. This movement is signed as ‘tempo di menuetto’ yet there are more serious things at stake here. The finale is effectively an ‘introduction and fugue’. The liner-notes point out that there is a reference to the opening movement in the last pages of this Sonata.
The Second Sonata was completed in August 1917 and was dedicated ‘to Charles Marie Widor and the great country to which he belongs.’ This is a ‘war’ sonata in its content and substance. Charles Porte has noted that it was inspired by the heroism of France in the ‘terrible and costly struggle’ against the invading German army. The opening movement is subtitled ‘Rheims’ after the cathedral that was badly damaged in an artillery bombardment. This is music that seems to embrace both patriotism and solemnity. The second movement is a funeral march of considerable depth and thoughtfulness. The finale, ‘Verdun, 1916’ is largely heroic without being ‘triumphant’ or ‘jingoistic’. Immense and powerful, this almost frightening music is at one and the same time inspiring and deeply moving. Stanford orchestrated the last two movements which were later performed at an Albert Hall Sunday afternoon concert during 1918.
Daniel Cook was, until recently, Organist and Master of the Choristers at St David’s Cathedral. He had a considerable involvement in the Cathedral Festival. In 2013 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music. In September he took up the post of Sub-organist at Westminster Abbey. He is currently artistic director of Mousai Singers. Cook has recorded a number of CDs for Priory, including the complete works (all continuing) of Herbert Brewer, Herbert Sumsion and the present composer. He recently released a fine recording of the organ at St Mary’s, Cullercoats in Northumberland.
The sound quality of this present CD is impressive. It passes my ‘recorded organ music test’ of giving the impression of being in the nave of the cathedral whilst actually sitting in my chair in the music room. The liner notes are by Professor Jeremy Dibble who has contributed so much to the scholarship of Victorian and Edwardian composers. It is a considerable essay that examines each work in detail. The CD booklet includes the all-important specification for the organ at Salisbury Cathedral. This instrument was installed in 1877 by ‘Father’ Henry Willis and in spite of a series of rebuilds, cleans and restorations, this is reputed to sound exactly as it would have on the day it was built. John Stainer believed that this was ‘even finer than the organ Father Willis had designed for St Paul’s in 1872. The organ builder himself considered that it was his finest creation.
This is a fascinating first instalment of what promises to be a major contribution to Stanford’s recorded repertoire. I guess that there will be a further two or three CDs released before this collection is complete. I, for one, cannot wait for Volume 2.