The present organ of Lichfield Cathedral derives originally from an instrument by George Holditch which dates from the restoration of the Cathedral Quire in 1861. Alterations by William Hill & Son in 1884 were followed by further changes in 1908. Overhauls in 1974 and 2000 have resulted in an instrument which, according to Martyn Rawlins, the Cathedral organist and soloist on this disc, has been restored to an approximation of its 1908 arrangement including the use of Old Philharmonic Pitch which is sharper than normal concert pitch.
With a single exception the music played on this disc consists of arrangements of orchestral or band music by the great names of English music around the early twentieth century, transcribed by a series of famous organists including Sir Walter Alcock, John E. West, Henry Ley and Arthur Wills. I have no objection in principle to such transcriptions which can add a new and interesting dimension to the music, but arranging and playing such music is by no means easy, and some types of music resolutely refuse to translate well into this very different medium. Works for wind instruments are closer to the fundamental sound of the organ, so that the Chaconne from Holst’s First Suite for Military Band is particularly effective, arguably even gaining from this new guise. Works for strings can present more difficulties. Where they have a generally clear-cut sound, such as the Parry Suite, they can be effective on the organ but there is more of a problem where the ability of stringed instruments to vary their attack or for a single line to get louder or softer within a single note is hard to replicate or find a suitable alternative to those characteristics. Thus the two short Elgar pieces for strings – Elegy and Sospiri – are, to my ears at least, wholly ineffectual, their character lost and nothing new gained. Although Delius’ First Cuckoo is heard in a transcription by no less a Delius expert than Eric Fenby it too loses much more than it gains.
I should say at this point that I am in no wise blaming Martyn Rawlins or the Lichfield organ for this. Mr Rawlins does all that is possible to make these pieces sound idiomatic on an instrument whose actual sounds are wonderfully redolent of the period of the music. Where the music and instrument fit together better, as in the Coronation March or in the music by Stanford and Parry, the result is effective and enjoyable. Best of all however is the only piece of original organ music here – The Land of Lost Content by Paul Spicer. Despite or perhaps because of its relatively short duration it has a real sense of shape and character, and, maybe incidentally, shows off the organ and player’s capabilities well.
Despite my reservations about some of the pieces this is a worthy and interesting addition to the Great European Organs series which rightly attempts the match the music to the instrument. Like its predecessors it is well recorded and presented with good notes on the music, the instrument and the player. It would certainly be a very good souvenir of a visit to this most interesting but by no means most visited of English cathedrals. Much more than that, it is a well filled disc offering an interesting and coherent programme of music, well played on a very characterful instrument.