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Great European Organs No.97: Southwell Minster
Philip MARSHALL (1921-2005)
Prelude and Chaconne (1963) [9:35]
George Thomas FRANCIS (d.1946)
Lament (1942) [4:23]
Robert ASHFIELD (1911-2006)
Sonata for Organ (1956) [16:35]
Neil COX (b.1955)
Four Ikons of the Archangels (2013) [17:40]
Eric THIMAN (1900-1975)
Three Pieces for Organ (1955) [11:16]
Robert BUSIAKIEWICZ (b.1990)
Epitaph: After Donald Crowhurst (2014) [7:55]
Arthur WILLS (b.1926)
Introduction and Allegro (1961) [8:03]
Simon Hogan (organ)
rec. Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, 12-14 January 2015
PRIORY PRCD1147 [75:27]

This imaginative programme from Southwell Minster begins with Philip Marshall’s Prelude and Chaconne which dates from 1963. It was written at the instigation of Francis Jackson of York Minster, and was dedicated to him. The re-dedication of the organ at Ripon Cathedral by Jackson saw its premiere. It is very much a work of its time and none the worse for that. The liner-notes emphasise the rhapsodic Prelude with opening fanfares which gradually subside to the start of the second part of the piece. This Chaconne has 15 variations and makes use of the BACH motif. Marshall exploits a wide range of registrations in each of the variations. This is a complex, virtuosic piece that ought to be heard more often.

George Thomas Francis died in 1946: his birth-date is not given. Francis’ musical career included time at Wigan and Leeds Parish Churches and York Minster. In 1929 he was appointed organist at Southwell Minster. The Lament was composed in 1942 and was dedicated to Sir Edward Bairstow, then organist at York Minster. It is a little bit of a chromatic meander, although it has some lovely musical moments.

I have always had a sneaking preference for absolute music composed for the organ: I think of the ‘Symphonies’ of Vierne, Guilmant and Widor. Then there are the Sonatas by Howells, Hindemith and Harwood. The present Sonata by Surrey-born composer Robert Ashfield (1911-2006) was written in 1956 at the time when he moved from Rector Chori (Organist and Musical Director) at Southwell to Rochester Cathedral. The work is in three contrasting movements: Allegro moderato, Intermezzo and Rondo (allegro giocoso). It is a well-designed Sonata that explores a variety of then-contemporary musical styles. There are nods to jazz, Herbert Howells, ‘angular melodies’, a palette of wide degrees of dissonance and complex rhythms. The general impression is of balance, poise and technical assurance.

Neil Cox’s ‘Four Ikons of the Archangels’ was composed in 2013 and was premiered by Daniel Cook at Westminster Cathedral on 21 July of that year. This is (I understand) the work’s premiere commercial recording. The inspiration is the 'traditional iconography of the Archangels'. Each movement or ‘Ikon’ is based on the same ‘strange 4-note motif’ presented in a wide variety of ways from the first to the last page of the score. The four Archangels are Gabriel, Michael, Raphael and Uriel. Their particular attributes are Herald of the Mysteries of God, Vanquisher of Satan, the Healing Power of God and the Interpreters of Prophecies respectively. This big, commanding piece is on a par with Messiaen’s great liturgical organ works. The musical language is slightly more conventional. As I listened, I was reminded of Vaughan Williams’ ballet Job in relation to the mood if not the musical language. So perhaps RVW meets Messiaen? It is a masterpiece, whatever the influences.

The Three Pieces for Organ by Eric Thiman were published in 1955. The first is ‘Meditation on the Hymn Tune ‘Slane’’ which is used for the St Patrick’s great words ‘Be thou my vision’. The piece is in arch form with a strong climax followed by a quiet conclusion. His use of the tune involves fragments rather than direct quotation. The second piece is a Pavane which is a well-written pastiche of the 16th/17th century dance. It would make a fine voluntary for Evensong. The final Postlude is a ‘rousing’ ‘Alla Marcia’ with an introspective middle section. Thiman had produced here three valuable and interesting pieces for ‘everyday’ use in church or cathedral.

Robert Busiakiewicz’s Epitaph: After Donald Crowhurst was commissioned for the present recording and completed in 2014. The work is programmatic and is based on Donald Crowhurst’s ill-fated attempt at winning the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (1968), a non-stop race to circumnavigate the world. Crowhurst falsified his log entries and Morse code signals in order to try to win the race. He ended up drowning: the boat was found drifting in the Atlantic. The liner-notes suggest that influences include Kaikhosru Sorabji, Jean-Louis Florentz and Olivier Messiaen.

Busiakiewicz could/should have dumped the programme, called the work just ‘Epitaph’ and he would still have produced a stunning and absorbing piece of ‘absolute’ music.

Arthur Wills, long-time Director of Music at Ely Cathedral (1958-93) has written a wide range of music, nevertheless he is best known for his organ works. The Introduction and Allegro was composed in 1961 and was dedicated to his wife. In his autobiography the composer has noted the clear French influence of Messiaen and Vierne in this music.

Surprisingly, there appears to be only one other version of this powerful piece in the current CD catalogue which is the composer’s own 1967 recording made at Ely Cathedral. Other works included on that record were Messiaen’s ‘La Nativité’, Vierne’s ‘Naďades’ and Dupré’s 'Variations sur un Noël' for organ. It is not hard to see the musical connection, although Wills’ piece is a valuable essay in its own right.

The liner-notes by Paul Hale are excellent, and I acknowledge relying on them heavily in writing this review. Each composer is given a brief introduction along with concise notes about the music. There is an essay discussing the organs of Southwell Minster as well as the all-important organ specification. In this recording they have used the Quire Organ built by Nicolson of Great Malvern and commissioned in 1996. There is a short biography of the organist Simon Hogan who is currently Assistant Director of Music at Southwell Minster.

This excellent programme of 20th/21st century British works is played on an outstanding instrument and is superbly recorded. The organist plays all this music with sympathy and obvious technical rigour. Many of these works were new to me, however they are all impressive and lie in the trajectory of the very best of British cathedral organ music.

John France

 

 




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