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Transformations Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Sonata Eroica, op.94 (1930) [19:12] Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
The Dancing Pipes (2016) [10:11] Franz LISZT(1811-1886)
Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. S.259 (1850) [32:41]
Alexander Ffinch (organ)
rec. 2018, Cheltenham College Chapel, UK DIVINE ARTDDA25193 [62:05]
The first of three major works on this CD is Joseph Jongen’s imposing Sonata Eroica. This piece was commissioned by Belgium Radio in 1930 for the inaugural concert at the art-deco concert hall and arts centre at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The work was played on the newly installed instrument built by Josef Stevens of Duffel, near Malines. The Sonata is dedicated to Joseph Bonnet, the former organist at St Eustache’s Church in Paris. The liner notes explain that this is not a ‘sonata’ in any traditional sense, but a set of ‘symphonic’ variations based on an Ardennes folksong. This tune first appears after a loud and demanding introduction. The piece concludes with a ‘tightly-wrought neo-classical fugue’ and a wonderful peroration, sounding like all the bells of Brussels ringing peals of joy and triumph.
Listeners will detect several influences in this music including Claude Debussy, fellow Belgian César Franck and most important of all, Franz Liszt. Yet, I believe that Joseph Jongen has created a marvellous synthesis that is never pastiche. Alexander Ffinch gives a vibrant performance of Jongen’s Sonata. There is a fine balance between the romantically charged slow middle section, the commanding introduction and the overpowering conclusion. The contrast between these three ‘sections’ is perfectly made.
I have not heard Jonathan Dove’s The Dancing Pipes before reviewing this CD. The piece was commissioned by St Lawrence’s Church in Ludlow, Shropshire and was dedicated to organist Thomas Trotter. It commemorated the 250th anniversary of the installation of the church’s Snetzler organ. The Dancing Pipes is characterised by an ever-changing sense of rhythmic drive propelled by varying metres that certainly satisfies the ‘Dancing’ part of the title. Dove has written that the work was derived from a ‘little dancing figure’ that dominates the piece and is largely resistant to ‘the challenges of various counterpoints that tried to knock it off balance.’ Naturally, the little melody survives, but not before ‘the organ pipes themselves wanted to dance.’ It is a superb piece that is, I suppose, a toccata of sorts: it is an ideal conclusion to a recital or a recessional for seeing the worshipers off the premises at the end of Matins. It is also a splendid concert-piece. The overall stylistic impression of this music is ‘minimalist’, at least in the sense that it reminds me of Philip Glass. It is played with excitement and a sense of drama and attention to registration which provides colour to this compulsive piece. This is The Dancing Pipes’ ‘world premiere recording’: I doubt that it will be the last.
The corpus of Franz Liszt’s organ music is currently dominated by two major pieces that have stood the test of time: The Prelude and Fugue on BACH (1855) and the present Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’. Both remain in the repertoire of recitalists. ‘Ad Nos’ is a long work, lasting over half an hour. Despite its title, it is divided into three sections: Fantasy, Adagio and Fugue. Liszt began composing the work in 1842 and finally completed it in 1850. He considered it ‘as one of [his] least bad productions.’ The piece is based on a chorale sung by Anabaptists in German-composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act opera La Prophète (1849). What Liszt has done is to create a ‘compendium’ of organ playing ‘devices.’ The success of this work depends on the recitalist’s ability to manage the instrument in presenting ‘a kaleidoscopic range of moods and colours.’ There are three underlying compositional techniques here: organ, piano and orchestral. This fact alone, demands considerable challenges to the registration and playing technique. For me, Ffinch’s performance achieves this well, but in a typically restrained manner. I note the work’s often improvisatory and rhapsodic character and understand that this feature can be the work’s glory and perhaps its downfall. There is always a danger of the music drifting into ‘empty waffle’ Ffinch avoids this and presents a convincing and satisfying account of a work regarded by many as being one of the masterpieces of nineteenth-century organ music.
The three-manual organ was originally installed at the Cheltenham College Chapel in 1897 by Norman and Beard. The organ case was designed by the chapel architect Henry Prothero. Over the past 120 years the instrument was been rebuilt on one occasion (1930) and restored in 1976. This work was carried out by Harrison and Harrison. Finally, in 2017 the organ was dismantled and fully restored at the organ builder’s Durham workshops.
Alexander Ffinch is currently the organist at Cheltenham College Chapel, responsible for the day to day worship at the Chapel as well as accompanying choirs and giving recitals. He was appointed in 2004.
David Gammie provides excellent details of the music and composers in the liner notes, along with the all-important full specification of the instrument. Despite the eye-boggling ‘Cosmati’ pattern on the CD cover, there are three good photographs of the organ: console, pipe-rack and a general view of the chapel. Other pictures feature all three composers, the organist Alexander Ffinch and an etching by Charles Bour (1814-1881) of the cover of the piano reduction score of Meyerbeer’s Le Prophete.
This is an enormously satisfying CD presenting three war-horses that are either standards in organists’ repertoire (Liszt and Jongen) or ought to be (Dove). It is a well-produced disc that rewards the listener attention. The playing overall is ideal, and the sound quality is well-balanced.
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