The King of Instruments – A Voice Reborn
Simon PRESTON (b. 1938)
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Preludes from Das Clavierübung III:
Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott (BWV 680) [3:33]
Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam (BWV 684) [4:35]
Kyrie, Gott, heiliger Geist (BWV 671) [4:16]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Organ Sonata, Op. 65, No. 1 in F minor [15:05]
Harvey GRACE (1874-1944)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Pièce héroïque (M 37) [8:53]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Preludes from Das Orgelbüchlein:
In dir ist Freude (BWV 615) [2:42]
O Mensch, bewein’, dein’ Sünde groß (BWV 622) [5:14]
Heut’ triumphiret Go es Sohn (BWV 630) [1:26]
George BAKER (b. 1951)
Procession Royale [4:12]
Stephen Cleobury (organ)
rec. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, 2017
KING’S COLLEGE CAMBRIDGE KGS0020 [63:37]
“In 2016”, according to the gloriously comprehensive and informative booklet notes, “the organ in King’s College Chapel underwent the most significant restoration since the late 1960s”. The work, undertaken by Harrison and Harrison and advised by Stephen Cleobury, took nine months and Cleobury made this recording on the newly restored organ a few months later, by which time it seems to have bedded itself down very well indeed. There is no need for me here to delve into the details of the restoration, the new stops or the tonal alterations, since these are well documented in the disc. Nor is there any need for me to offer detailed opinions about how the organ sounds now as compared with how it did before; enthusiasts will recognise these soon enough. For the majority of those buying this disc, what really matters is how the organ sounds in the repertory Cleobury has chosen and what he himself brings to these pieces, nearly all of which will be very familiar to anyone with an interest in organ music.
However, it is impossible not to comment on the exceptional clarity the restored organ brings to the flamboyant opening gestures of Simon Preston’s Alleluyas. Cleobury takes it at a brisk pace, and one which, perhaps in the past, might have left the detail clogged up inside the organ. But it works well and the combination of the organ’s bright colours and Cleobury’s highly effective handling of the many registration changes provides a gloriously invigorating opener to this recital.
Bach chorale preludes frame the central core of the recital, three from the Clavierübung III and three from the Orgelbüchlein. We read that the intention here is to “demonstrate six different registrations, presenting a number of ‘organ pleno’ combinations and…making use of the choir mutations stops”. I find the Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott prelude sounds here a trifle dry and thin, but have no such reservations about the abundance of contrasting colours in Cleobury’s beautifully florid account of Christ, unser Herr, zum Jordan kam nor about the gutsy pleno in this majestic realisation of Kyrie, Gott, heiliger Geist. Clarity is the key feature in a performance of In dir ist Freude which registered quite heavily might easily descend into muddy waters but actually has a lively buoyancy to it. Cleobury’s comment that the choir mutation stops are “a special beauty of this organ” is fully supported by the delicious solo combination in O Mensch, bewein’, dein’ Sünde groß, while his final ‘pleno’ combination gives Heut’ triumphiret Gottes Sohn a somewhat austere magnificence.
The central work in the programme is Mendelssohn’s First Sonata, a work included ostensibly to display the organ’s Romantic credentials, but clearly music for which Cleobury himself has deep affection. This is a sturdy and beautifully delivered account, perceptive and immensely stylish, always well-paced, and while there may be occasions where stops are used more to show them off than to fit in with Mendelssohn’s intentions, it all works extremely well. If one of the aspects of the organ which has been improved by the renovation has been its clarity of sound, that is in no way to the detriment of this music, and the juxtaposition of the first movement’s full organ fugal passages with the chorale theme on softer stops is highly effective.
Cleobury is also very obviously deeply enamoured of Harvey Grace’s Resurgam, and while its somewhat cloying harmonic palette and emphasis on dramatic gesture will not be to everybody’s taste – it has more the character of a less woolly-minded and rambling Percy Whitlock than genuine musical individuality – I am won over by the vigour and commitment of this performance. And it certainly achieves what the disc sets out to achieve; it provides a glorious tour around the organ’s more exciting resources.
Much as Cleobury informed the Grace Resurgam with a powerful rhythmic momentum, he does the same with the opening section of César Franck’s oft-recorded Pièce héroïque. The organ does not pretend to sound anything other than thoroughly English, but this is a performance which can hold its head up high even among the most ardently French company, for its great strength is not the sound of the instrument itself but Cleobury’s clear-sighted feel for the work’s architecture. It has a satisfying sense of purpose and, unlike so many Franck performances which get distracted by the opportunities offered to wallow in instrumental colour, comes across here not so much as a display of organ sound as a coherent and logical interpretation. Even where, after 3:24, Cleobury purposely distorts the balance of the inner texture to demonstrate some of new stops and revoiced pipework, the effect is totally musical.
For those for whom (like me) the name of George Baker is unfamiliar, he is, according to the booklet, “a distinguished dermatologist” resident in Dallas. Cleobury writes that he is also a “Francophile when it comes to the organ”, but his stately and pompous Procession Royale is firmly in the British tradition. With its spicy harmonies and stately tread, it belongs firmly to the world of Mathias, Leighton
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