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Handel and his English contemporaries
see end of review for track listing
Robert Woolley (organ)
rec. 18-20 July 2011, Parish Church of St Mary and St Nicholas, Leatherhead
REGENT REGCD382 [78:50]

An organist who wants to perform English music of the 18th century in an "authentic" way faces the problem that very few instruments from that period have survived. The organ Robert Woolley plays on the present disc is a bit of a miracle. It has not survived as it was built by Thomas Parker for Warford parish church in 1766. Parts of it were used by Walker for an organ he built in 1873 in Leatherhead parish church. This organ was largely destroyed by fire in 1989, but miraculously the ingredients of the old Parker organ were untouched. These were stored and in 2007 used for the organ Woolley plays here. The reconstruction was made possible because one other organ by Parker has been preserved: the house organ he built for Charles Jennens, the librettist of various Handel oratorios. The case of the organ is entirely new. The instrument has two manuals, but no pedal.
The absence of a pedal was common in England at the time. That is reflected in the repertoire which is exclusively for manuals. This means that most of the music played here can also be performed on the harpsichord. One of the most common forms was the voluntary, and many collections mention both the organ and the harpsichord in their titles. However, it is notable that in the collections from which Woolley has selected these pieces, the organ is always mentioned first. This suggests that these pieces were conceived for the organ in the first place. The fact that various movements specifically refer to stops of the organ to be used - such as the cornet and the trumpet - bears witness to that. Moreover, all the composers represented were active as organists at some church in London or elsewhere.
The only exception is Handel. His oeuvre includes very few pieces specifically intended for the organ. His organ concertos are among his most famous instrumental works, and these were also published in versions for organ solo. The popularity of his vocal works resulted in arrangements of instrumental movements and arias for keyboard. Woolley opens the programme with the overture to his opera Ottone; it is thought that Handel himself made this arrangement. He was certainly responsible for the arrangement of the Air in F from his Water Music. Among his original organ music are six fugues, three of which are played here. The Fugue in A minor is remarkable for its chromatic passages.
It seems likely that arrangements, as just mentioned, were intended for domestic performance on the harpsichord or on house organs, such as Jennens' instrument. However, it is known that John Marsh (1752-1828) played his own arrangements of pieces from Handel oratorios in church, and it is unlikely that he was the first. The Voluntaries which take the rest of the programme were certainly intended for ecclesiastical use, although - as the reference to the harpsichord indicates - not exclusively. Early specimens of this genre, in the first decades after the Restoration, usually comprised just one movement. Most of the pieces played here consist of two movements. The first are mostly for the diapasons, in a slow tempo, and to be played before the reading. The second movements are mostly fast, and to be played at the end of the service. In these movements we find often indications of the stop to be used. One of the best-known pieces on the programme is the vivace from Stanley's Voluntary for the Trumpet Stop in D. He composed several 'trumpet voluntaries', and so did other composers.
One of the attractions of this disc is the mixture of rather well-known names, such as Walond, Stanley and Greene, and some largely unknown quanties such as John James and the Goodwins. Most of the music is taken from collections of various pieces which means that more discs could be filled with this repertoire. There is certainly room for more as the market is not exactly flooded with CDs like this.
The music is highly enjoyable, and of considerable versatility. Some of these pieces are rather light-hearted, but there are also compositions which include remarkable harmonic progressions. These come off perfectly thanks to the temperament of the organ, described in the booklet as an "irregular meantone temperament". This kind of tuning was used in England well into the 19th century. The performance by Robert Woolley takes profit from the instrument, and is as close to an "authentic" performance as is possible. Woolley is an experienced interpreter of pre-romantic keyboard music, and delivers fully idiomatic performances. In the andante from Walond's Voluntary X he makes an effective use of the Swell. This reflects the wish of composers and performers to be able to make crescendi and diminuendi. This also resulted in the addition of pedals to harpsichords, and - from the 1770s onwards - the emergence of the fortepiano.
This is a fine survey of English organ music of the 18th century and should appeal beyond the ranks of organ aficionados.

Johan van Veen

Track listing
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Overture Ottone (after HWV 15) [5:03]
Jesu, meine Freude (HWV 480) [2:03]
Air in B flat (HWV 469) [3:10]
Fugue in g minor (HWV 605) [3:31]
Fugue in B flat (HWV 607) [2:34]
(Verse) in F (HWV deest) [0:44]
Air in F (after HWV 348) [1:57]
Fantasie in C (HWV 490) [3:34]
Fugue in a minor (HWV 609) [1:01]
Voluntary on a Flight of Angels (HWV 600) [1:12]
William WALOND (c.1725-1770)
Voluntary X in a minor [3:56]
John JAMES (?-1745)
Voluntary VI in e minor [2:03]
William GOODWIN (?-c.1785)
Voluntary VII in G [3:47]
William BOYCE (1711-1779)
Voluntary V in D [4:47] William WALOND
Voluntary II in G [4:10]
Starling GOODWIN (c.1714-1774)
Voluntary VII in D [4:29]
Thomas ROSEINGRAVE (1688-1766)
Voluntary in g minor [4:08]
John STANLEY (1712-1786)
A Voluntary for th Trumpet Stop in D, op. 6,5 [6:47] Thomas ROSEINGRAVE
Voluntary in G [2:14]
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)
Voluntary VII in E flat [3:15]
Voluntary XIX in c minor [3:37]
James NARES (1715-1783)
Voluntary in a minor [5:47]