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Herbert SUMSION (1899-1995)
The Complete Organ Works - Volume 1
Daniel Cook (organ)
rec. Organ of Salisbury Cathedral, 30-31 August and 1 September 2011
PRIORY PRCD1075 [71:16]

The Complete Organ Works -Volume 2
Daniel Cook (organ)
rec. Organ of St. David’s Cathedral, 12-14 November 2012
PRIORY PRCD1093 [75:47]

I first became properly aware of Herbert Sumsion – or ‘John’ Sumsion as friends and family called him – when I moved to live in Gloucester in the late 1980s. To a large extent this increased awareness on my part occurred because the then conductor of the choir I joined was a past pupil of Sumsion and they had stayed in touch. From Sumsion he had learned not only the organ but also much about conducting, in particular the music of Elgar. Sumsion’s long life was drawing to a close at that time but he remained highly respected in Gloucestershire.

That should not be a surprise for he had given a lifetime of service to the musical life of the county and in particular to the musical and liturgical life of Gloucester Cathedral. Born in Gloucester, he was a chorister at the cathedral (1908-14) and then became an articled pupil of the cathedral Organist, Sir Herbert Brewer. After war service he was Brewer’s assistant (1919-22). However, his musical education was not parochial for he then took posts in London and studied at the Royal College of Music. In 1926, impressed by his talent, R O Morris, who had just accepted a senior post at the prestigious Curtis Institute, invited Sumsion to accompany him to Philadelphia as an assistant instructor. Sumsion was about to return to England in 1928 to become Organist of Coventry Cathedral when a more pressing invitation arrived: Brewer had died suddenly and the Dean and Chapter of Gloucester asked Sumsion to succeed him. He took up the post – I wonder what they thought about that in Coventry – and retained it for an astonishingly long period, retiring in 1967.

In a long and busy career as a teacher, conductor and cathedral organist it must have been difficult to find time for composition but Sumsion composed in a variety of genres, not least choral and organ music. On these two CDs Daniel Cook presents a survey of all Sumsion’s organ music though there isn’t quite enough to fill two discs so the second volume also contains two Elgar arrangements by Brewer. Cook uses two organs. The first is the organ of Salisbury Cathedral, where he was Assistant Organist until 2011, leaving just after the sessions for Volume I. He then moved to be Organist of St David’s Cathedral and Volume II was recorded there just over a year after his arrival. So he’s playing two instruments with which he’s very familiar and in acoustics to which he’s accustomed. Part of me regrets that the recordings weren’t made on the Gloucester Cathedral organ – on which Sumsion made his very fine recording of the Elgar Organ Sonata in 1965 (review) – however it was surely right for Daniel Cook to play on organs that he knows well. In any case the Gloucester instrument is not quite the organ that Sumsion knew; it has been remodelled and its magnificent sound now has a somewhat French accent which was not the case in Sumsion’s day.

Though I enjoyed both the music on these discs and Daniel Cook’s performances I think it is fair to say that while there’s a lot of very good music here, all of it skilfully crafted, there’s no great music. The strongest piece in Volume 1 is Introduction and Theme. In her admirable notes Diane Nolan Cooke describes this as “an ambitiously conceived recital piece.” I found it interesting, varied and impressive though the quiet end, while beautiful in its own right, was a slight let-down. Quite a lot of the music on this disc is essentially gentle in tone. In this category comes Variations on a Folk Tune, which is based on I Will Give My Love an Apple. I liked this very much. Apparently Sumsion had previously composed a set of 15 variations for piano on this tune and from that work he later extracted five for this organ piece. The Elegy is modest in tone and tranquil while the fluent and tranquil Pastoral is, as its title suggests, very much of that English tradition.

In contrast I liked the uncomplicated and extrovert Ceremonial March. This is affectionately described as “splashy” in the notes but it’s none the worse for that. Also in a more extrovert vein is Toccata on ‘University’ which provides a striking opening to the recital.

Mention should also be made of the Four Preludes on Well-Known Carols. The first and last of these are extrovert pieces but the middle two are more gentle in tone; the treatment of 'The Holly and the Ivy’ in that way is mildly surprising. When I listened to the Prelude on 'Unto Us is Born a Son' I could readily imagine that being played as a cheerful voluntary while the congregation streamed out of Gloucester Cathedral after Christmas Morning Eucharist.

Volume 2 also ends with a substantial work in the shape of Air, Berceuse and Procession. In fact the three movements can be played independently. The first movement is light-footed and rather jolly. The Berceuse (track 13 from 4:21) is well described by Diane Nolan Cooke as an elegant lullaby. The concluding Procession (from 9:27) is a confident, quintessentially English march. The other original pieces on this disc are less significant. Prelude and Aria takes material from an orchestral overture, In the Cotswolds, first heard in 1930. From the title of the overture you won’t be surprised to learn that the subsequent organ piece is very English in tone. The material is good and I enjoyed the piece. Cradle Song is charming, if subdued. Saraband and Interlude is a work that’s modest in scale and scope but very pleasing.

Vaughan Williams was a big influence on Sumsion; his Chorale Prelude on ' Down Ampney’, which is included in Volume 1, was a homage to VW and in this companion volume Daniel Cook offers four arrangements of pieces by Vaughan Williams. The first two are movements from VW’s Suite for Viola and Small Orchestra, which Sumsion made in 1938, only four years after the original appeared. The second pair are arrangements of the Two Hymn-Tune Preludes for orchestra, unveiled in their orchestral guise at the 1936 Three Choirs Festival. All these arrangements seem to me to be very successful.

Daniel Cook concludes his survey by including two Elgar arrangements by Sumsion’s first mentor, Sir Herbert Brewer. It may be wondered why Brewer should have yoked together the start and conclusion of The Dream of Gerontius. Until 1910 the then Dean of Gloucester, Donald Spence-Jones (Dean from 1887 to 1917) refused to allow performances of Elgar’s new work at Gloucester Three Choirs Festivals on account of what he believed was the overt Roman Catholicism of Newman’s text. (It’s remarkable how much power Deans wielded in those days.) The most that Brewer was able to manage prior to 1910 was to perform the Prelude and the Angel’s Farewell, which Elgar himself conducted at the Opening Service of the 1901 Gloucester Festival. Brewer’s organ arrangement of the Prelude works quite well though it must be the very devil for an organist to try to convey Elgar’s complex music with a ‘mere’ ten fingers and two feet. The Farewell is less successful, I think, because the organ simply can’t do justice to all the many vocal and orchestral layers of Elgar’s score.

As I indicated earlier, there are no masterpieces here but these two discs contain some very enjoyable, technically expert and worthwhile music. Herbert Sumsion knew what he was about when it came to organ composition. He is splendidly served here by Daniel Cook whose sympathy with the music and understanding of it is readily apparent. He’s imaginative in his registrations and colourings and his playing is a constant delight. Both organs suit the music very well and Neil Collier has recorded both instruments impressively; the sound is spacious yet detailed. The documentation is excellent and includes full specifications of both organs. The notes by Diane Nolan Cooke are highly readable and informative both about the composer and the music.

John Quinn

Previous reviews: John France Volume 1 ~ Volume 2

Contents
Volume 1

Toccata on ‘University’ (1987) [2:52]
Variations on a Folk Tune (pub.1989) [8:03]
Quiet Postlude (1957) [6:18]
Four Preludes on Well-Known Carols (1955): Prelude on 'Adeste Fideles' [3:39] Prelude on 'The Coventry Carol' [2:53] Prelude on 'The Holly and the Ivy' [4:29] Prelude on 'Unto Us is Born a Son' [5:01]
Canzona for Organ (1957) [4:24]
Elegy (1955) [5:04]
Ceremonial March (posth. 1998) [3:56]
Prelude (1977) [2:02]
Chorale Prelude on 'Dundee' (1977) [2:54]
Pastoral (1949) [2:54]
Chorale Prelude 'Liebster Immanuel' (1977) [2:01]
Chorale Prelude on ' Down Ampney’ (posth. 2000) [4:54]
Introduction and Theme (1936) [8:02]

Volume 2
Prelude and Aria (1940) [4:54]
Cradle Song (1954) [5:36]
Allegretto (1954) [3:22]
Intermezzo (1955) [5:31]
Saraband and Interlude (pub.1975) [4:24]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Carol (arr. Sumsion, 1934/38) [2:31]
Musette (arr. Sumsion, 1934/38) [3:35]
Eventide (arr. Sumsion, 1936/38) [2:44]
Dominus Regit Me (arr. Sumsion, 1936/38) [3:00]
Johann SEBASTIAN BACH (1685-1750)
Aria ‘Komm Süsser Tod’ (arr. Sumsion) [3:01]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1862-1934)
Prelude and Angel’s Farewell from ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ (arr. Herbert Brewer, 1900/03) [15:36]
Chanson de Matin (arr. Brewer, 1889/1904) [3:47]
Herbert SUMSION
Air, Berceuse and Procession (1960) [16:16]

 

 




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