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Sir George DYSON (1883-1964)
The Complete Organ Works
Fantasia (1958) [8:37]
Ground Bass (1958) [6:40]
Variations on Old Psalm Tunes, Book 1 (1960) [11:19]
Prelude (1956) [5:31]
Variations on Old Psalm Tunes, Book 2 (1961) [14:29]
Voluntary (1958) [3:07]
Variations on Old Psalm Tunes, Book 3 (1961) [12:21]
Postlude (1956) [3:03]
Daniel Cook (organ)
rec. 15-17 September 2014, St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol
PRIORY PRCD1136 [66:23]

In 2014, when the 50th anniversary of Dyson’s death occurred, I wrote a survey of significant recordings of his works. That survey made no claims to completeness – it covered only discs that I had heard – and it focused largely on his choral and orchestral music. One area which was not covered, except in passing, was Dyson’s music for the organ but so far as I am aware at that time this part of his output was represented only by recordings of individual works: there was no complete recorded edition. Daniel Cook has now provided just such a survey.

Dyson’s earliest musical experience was as a youthful church organist in his home town of Halifax, as is chronicled in Paul Spicer’s comprehensive biography of the composer (review). Indeed, he was something of an early prodigy as an organist, passing his FRCO in early 1900 at the age of just 16. Organ playing was an important part of his post-war school teaching career, especially at Marlborough College. In subsequent years composing in a wide variety of genres and, especially, his work as Director of the Royal College of Music consumed his attentions. Consequently it was only after he retired from the RCM in 1952 and had more leisure for composing in general that he produced some organ works. All the pieces that Daniel Cook presents here date from that period. Incidentally, the Fantasia and Ground Bass are dated 1960 in the very useful notes but, according to Paul Spicer’s book that’s the date of their publication; composition occurred two years earlier.

Given how active he was as an organist in his youth and early career it’s mildly surprising that Dyson delayed organ composition for so long. Paul Spicer mentions that in April 1900 he gave a ‘farewell’ recital in Halifax before embarking on his studies in London. At this he played his own four-movement Organ Sonata in C minor but like many other early works it has not survived. Whilst it may be regretted that Dyson did not turn to – or return to – organ composition earlier the works that we have represent a mature and highly experienced composer. As we shall see, they also represent a very practical composer.

The practical side of Dyson’s compositional nature is nowhere better shown than in his three sets of Variations on Old Psalm Tunes. Each set consists of four pieces. All of them are short – each is less than four minutes in duration – and all are based on tunes from the 16th and 17th centuries, most if not all of which had become well-known hymn tunes. They are designed to serve as voluntaries to precede or to conclude an Anglican service. Broadly, each set of four contains two pieces – the central two – which would function as thoughtful or gentle preludes while the outer two are more extrovert in character and would ideally serve as recessionals.

I liked all of these pieces. The last one from Book 1, ‘God moves in a mysterious way’ is celebratory in nature and good use is made here of what sounds like a clarion stop for the tune. The first piece in Book 2 is ‘O God, my strength and fortitude’ and is suitably forthright and confident. By contrast, the second piece in this set, ‘O for a heart to praise’ is gentle and soothing. The last one in Book 2 is ‘Love of the Father’ and it struck me on hearing it that Dyson’s way with this tune is as reassuring as the strong stone walls of a church, maybe a sturdy church in his native West Riding of Yorkshire. The concluding piece in Book 3, ‘I was glad’, is based on a Scottish tune. The scherzo-like music is nimble at first but becomes grand towards the end. These twelve pieces are highly effective and they’d be a fine and welcome addition to the repertoire of most competent church organists.

The Fantasia and Ground Bass is a single work in two movements, though I would imagine the movements could be performed separately. This, I think, is a concert work. The Fantasia begins with an impressive Maestoso after which the allegro section (from 2:00) is varied and interesting. This is a colourful and dynamic piece – and performance. The Ground Bass begins very softly in the pedals. The music takes a while to emerge from the initial subdued vein but eventually a very full closing climax is achieved. Here the sound of the St Mary Redcliffe organ is majestic and thrilling.

Though placed apart in the programme the Prelude and Postlude are companion pieces, albeit they are independent of each other. The former is a gentle creation, akin to a song without words. It’s very pleasing. The Postlude is a bright and extrovert composition. I enjoyed it very much, not least the tummy-wobbling sound of the pedals at the end. The Voluntary is enjoyable and very effective.

All the various pieces by Dyson that I’ve encountered over the years have struck me as being expertly crafted and written with great understanding for the instrument(s) or voices for which he was writing. His music poses technical challenges but he’s not one of those composers who make extravagant demands on the musicians; he wanted his music to be performed and to be enjoyed. In that sense he was an eminently practical composer. Furthermore, his music is unfailingly accessible to the listener. Jonathan Clinch sums it up very well in his excellent notes when he writes that the pieces “demonstrate a directness and clarity which was typical of the straight-talking Yorkshireman.” He was referring there to the Variations on Old Psalm Tunes but, in truth, the comment could equally well serve the other works here.

That’s not to say that any of the music is simple. It requires fine technique, especially if it’s to be put across with flair and conviction. It’s hard to think it could be better served than by Daniel Cook. He has chosen to record the music on the Harrison and Harrison organ of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol. This instrument was built in 1912 and has since been rebuilt by the same firm twice, in 1947 and 2010. It is renowned as a romantic organ and it sounds absolutely splendid here. It’s clear from the detailed specification that the organ has been given an abundance of resources – including a 32 foot Double Ophicleide stop in the pedals which, Jonathan Clinch assures us, is put to good use at the end of the Postlude. It seems to me that Daniel Cook revels in the possibilities of the instrument and exploits it to the full so as to give colourful and often exciting performances.

The organ has been recorded with great skill and understanding by Neil Collier and makes its presence felt at all dynamic levels.

This disc is a notable addition to the Dyson discography.

John Quinn



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