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The Merton Organ
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Sinfonia from Cantata No 29 (arr. Marcel Dupré) [5:05]
Ertödt uns durch dein’ Güte from Cantata No 22 (arr. Maurice Duruflé) [3:32]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce héroïque [9:11]
John STANLEY (1712-1786)
Voluntary in A minor, IOp. 6 No 2 [5:39]
Olivier MESSIAEN (1908-1992)
Prière après la Communion from Livre du Saint Sacrement [6:36]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV565 [9:04]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Andante with Variations in D, Op. 82 [5:54]
Jean LANGLAIS (1907-1991)
Dialogue sur les mixtures from Suite Brève [3:10]
Marcel DUPRÉ (1886-1971)
Cortège et Litanie, Op. 19 No. 2 [6:59]
Louis VIERNE (1870-1937)
Clair de lune from 24 Pièces de Fantaisie (Second Suite No 5) [9:17]
Carillon de Westminster from 24 Pièces de Fantaisie (Third Suite No 6) [7:19]
Benjamin Nicholas (organ)
rec. 10-12 January 2014, Chapel of Merton College, Oxford. DDD
DELPHIAN DCD34142 [71:51]

To mark the 750th anniversary of the foundation of the college in 1264 and as part of the veritable explosion of musical activity there in the last few years Merton College has installed a splendid and substantial new organ in the college chapel. The three-manual instrument was built by the American company, Dobson Pipe Organ Builders of Lake City, Iowa. This is the 91st organ built by the firm since it was founded in 1974 and it’s the first of their instruments to be installed outside the USA. Furthermore, I think I’m right in saying that it’s only the third American organ installed in Britain since the Second World War.

This three-manual, 44-stop organ, which has nearly 3,000 pipes, took some five years to construct and it replaces a very much smaller 1968 Walker organ. I saw and heard the instrument for the first time at the beginning of April when I attended a concert in the chapel (review). It has a substantial casing, made of American white oak, which looks very handsome indeed. On that occasion I thought the organ sounded very well indeed but I was only able to hear it in a number of short pieces either taken from or inspired by Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. My first impression was very favourable but I expressed the view then I’d like to hear the new Merton organ in a wider range of music, not least in some French repertoire. Now, thanks to Delphian, those wishes have been granted for here we have the debut recording of the organ in a programme that has a generous whiff of Gallic air to it.

The selection of pieces has been shrewdly judged to show off the organ in various ways and within the programme the ordering of pieces effects some interesting contrasts. It’s no surprise, perhaps, that Bach gets the proceedings under way since any self-respecting organ needs to be capable of doing justice to the music that is the cornerstone of the organ repertoire. But you could say that it’s Monsieur Bach who sets us off on our exploration of the Merton organ for the two opening pieces are arrangements by distinguished French organists of music by Johann Sebastian. Dupré’s arrangement of the Sinfonia from Cantata 29 strikes me as a well-nigh perfect way to introduce the instrument. We hear thrilling deep pedal notes, sparkling reeds and exciting passagework: the Dobson organ has announced itself in fine style. Duruflé’s fluent, gentler Bach arrangement then affords an excellent contrast. I may be wrong but I think perhaps the Vox Humana stop on the Swell Organ is used to voice the melody. Whichever stop is used the effect is attractive.

Bach speaks with his own voice in the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. The piece gives the organ a vigorous workout from which it emerges with flying colours. The music – and the performance of it by Benjamin Nicholas – mixes grandeur and athleticism. This performance certainly establishes the Bachian credentials of the new instrument.

Franck’s Pièce héroïque would not be a Desert Island choice for me but it’s sensible to include it in this programme since it calls for a rich palette of colours. Nicholas employs some discerning registrations to bring out the best in the organ and he makes good use of the opportunities for contrast that Franck has written into the piece. The ending is grand and full-voiced. The little Stanley voluntary that follows is like a palate-cleansing sorbet after Franck’s rich pudding. Michael Emery tells us in his notes that a Cornet stop is used to voice the main melody. When this occurs (from 1:54) the perkiness of both the melody and the sound should make listeners smile.

I like the bright and lively composition by Jean Langlais and Benjamin Nicholas gives a performance which is equally bright and lively. The Dupré piece that follows is much more serious in demeanour, as its title suggests. Nicholas judges expertly the variety of colours in his performance. He also builds the music most impressively to its towering conclusion. Earlier we’ve heard a piece by Dupré’s most celebrated pupil, Olivier Messiaen. Prière après la Communion is typical of its composer in meditative mood. When one hears the long, quiet sustained chords that permeate the piece one can almost envisage the effect of sunlight in a church nave, refracted through stained glass and piercing through wisps of incense smoke. Nicholas voices most imaginatively the little shafts of melody that cut through the texture.

It was a good idea to bring the recital to an end with two highly contrasting pieces by Vierne. Clair de lune is a lovely, lush nocturne. The main melodic idea is heard primarily on the Harmonic Flute stop of the Great Organ, Michael Emery says, and it’s a shrewd stop selection for the sound of the melody is very winning. Carillon de Westminster is an organ showstopper, and rightly so. It’s an excellent choice as the last offering in this programme. Nicholas gives a colourful, exciting account of it and the conclusion is magisterial and magnificent. Incidentally, at the very end you can just hear, through the sonorous full organ chords, a tinkling sound. This, Michael Emery tells us, is achieved through the use of the Zimbelstern, ‘a real carillon of tiny bells connected to a rotating star at the top of the organ case.’ I shouldn’t think there will be too many opportunities to use this feature but, as they say, ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’; and why not showcase every last aspect of this organ in its debut recital?

Benjamin Nicholas is known primarily, at least on disc, as an excellent choral conductor but he’s clearly an adept organist too and I enjoyed this varied recital very much. The Merton College chapel has been the venue for many fine recordings down the years, primarily Tallis Scholars recordings on the Gimell label and, more recently, Delphian recordings of the Merton choir. This, I fancy, is perhaps the biggest sound that engineers have been called upon to capture in this acoustic. It seems to me that Paul Baxter has done an absolutely first class job. The quiet passages, when Nicholas produces sensitive registrations, come across beautifully and when he gives the instrument its head and unleashes its full-throated splendour the sound is reported in a thrilling fashion. Above all, I like two things: firstly, the clarity with which the organ can be heard, even when the fullest registrations are deployed; and, secondly, the way in which the instrument is reported within the acoustic of the chapel.

The booklet includes a full specification of the organ and a note about the instrument by John A. Penning of Dobson Pipe Organs. There’s also a very good essay by Michael Emery, a former Organ Scholar of Merton College. I wonder if he has the odd pang of regret that this fine instrument was not in situ during his time at the college.

The new Dobson organ is a splendid addition to Merton College Chapel. It makes a most auspicious debut on disc here and I hope there will be many more opportunities to hear it in the future. Congratulations are due to the builders in their fortieth anniversary year. It was clearly an important commission for them and Iowa’s first-ever ‘organ export’ was understandably a source of no little local pride, as you can read here.

John Quinn