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St Asaph Experience
Olivia Hunt (soprano)
John Hosking (organ)
Xander Croft (violin)
Bethan Griffiths (harp)
rec. 21 & 22 November, 2018, St Asaph Cathedral, Wales

This recital gets off to a great start with Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547, whose largely pastoral prelude features a construction similar to a ritornello (a short recurring passage). This is followed by a closely argued five-part fugue based on a single bar subject which has many wayward modulations and unexpected entries. Both movements have an unexpected ‘rhetorical pause’ at their conclusion which provides unity of structure. Probably composed in the 1740s, this may have been one of Bach’s last pieces for organ and is given an exhilarating performance by John Hosking.

C.S. Lang is universally known to organ music enthusiasts for his dynamic Tuba Tune, which has been recorded dozens of times, so it is refreshing to discover that Hosking has chosen to include the Introduction & Passacaglia in A minor, op.51, composed in 1952.  It is definitely in the post-Romantic tradition but looks over its shoulder to Bach’s Passacaglia in C minor, BWV 582.

Equally conservative is the Variations sur un NoŽl Bourguignon composed by Andrť Fleury at the end of the 1950s. This work seems to span the years between the seventeenth century French classical tradition and the more complex passagework prevalent in the twentieth century. It is a charming piece which makes an ideal set of Christmas variations. I understand that they are a wee bit easier to play than Marcel Duprť’s Variations sur un NoŽl but they are no cinch; they are satisfyingly played here.

I will pass over the saccharine pieces by Leon BoŽllmann, the ‘Ave Maria’ for soprano, violin, harp and organ, and the ‘Ave verum corpus’ for soprano and organ. I concede that they are well performed, but they sound rather too like Andrew Lloyd Webber for my taste. Equally syrupy is the present organist’s ‘In the halls of our patronage’ written for soprano and harp.

My interest is again aroused by the characteristically French-sounding Toccata by John Hosking, which takes its place with the great toccatas of Vierne, Widor, Gigout and, especially, Dubois. A bit pastiche, but great stuff.  Another Toccata (2003) by Guillaume Connesson, this time for solo harp, is a technically difficult piece with a delicate, filigree sound, full of vibrant cross-rhythms and just a touch of jazz. It often sounds like a theme-tune for a romantic drama TV series but is enjoyable for all that.

I did not warm to Lili Boulanger’s Pie Jesu. This haunting piece, originally scored for high voice, string quartet, harp and organ, has little to generate devotion or to give the dead any kind of ‘everlasting rest’. The string quartet has been dispensed with here and is about as far away as you could get from the hackneyed exemplars by Gabriel Faurť and Andrew Lloyd Webber.  This is the only work that Boulanger wrote using a Christian text: it has been suggested that she may have been working on a full setting of the Requiem Mass. Despite my reservations, it is beautifully sung by Olivia Hunt.

I usually enjoy the organ music of Sigfrid Karg-Elert; however, this lugubrious Symphonic Chorale, op.87 no.3 'Nun ruhen alle Wšlder' for soprano, violin and harp, composed in 1911, is the longest piece on this CD and hard going. The opening organ sections are not bad; it is just that the rest of the music seems to me to be a rambling, long-winded dirge. The title translates ‘Now all the woods are resting.’ This music certainly does have a somnolent effect on me, and I am not a tree.

All is back to as it should be with the French composer Marcel Duprť’s frenetic ‘Toccata’ from the Organ Symphony No.2, op.26. It is a fiery, compelling work that is always guaranteed to give a satisfying conclusion to a recital and is played here with aplomb.

I found the booklet rather difficult to read as the font is very small and although a lot of information is presented in these pages, the order of discussion is very different from the track listings and dates for some of the music are not given. The texts of the vocal works are included, along with translations where appropriate, and there is detailed biographical information about the performers. A full specification of the impressive four-manual organ is printed, along with a brief historical outline. The original one manual Hill instrument was installed in 1824, the most recent rebuild being in 1998, when the organ was enlarged, with a ‘solo’ manual and a new oak case. It is an impressive instrument.

The recording is excellent with a good balance achieved, especially when other soloists are accompanied by the organ. 

I was disappointed that the programme did not feature any music by William Mathias, a great composer of music for organ who in 1972 founded the St Asaph Festival, which is going strong to this day. I would willingly have swapped the turgid Karg Elert or the mawkish BoŽllmann for any one of Mathias’s works.
John France
Johannes Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) Prelude and Fugue in C major, BWV 547 (1740s) [10:52]
Craig Sellar (C.S.) LANG (1891-1971) Introduction and Passacaglia in A minor, op.51 (1952) [9:16]
Andrť FLEURY (1903-95) Variations sur un NoŽl Bourguignon (1959/60) [7:35]
Lťon BOňLLMANN (1862-97) Ave Maria for soprano, violin, harp and organ, from Six Motets (c.1887) [3:58]
John HOSKING (b.1976) Toccata in F sharp major (2017) [4:56]
Guillaume CONNESSON (b.1970) Toccata for solo harp (2003) [4:48]
Lťon BOELLMANN Ave verum corpus for soprano and organ, from Six Motets (c.1887) [3:04]
Lili BOULANGER (1893-1918) Pie Jesu for soprano, harp and organ (1918) [4:19]
John HOSKING ‘In the halls of our patronage’ for soprano and harp (2018) [3:08]
Sigfrid KARG-ELERT (1877-1933) Symphonic Chorale, op.87 no.3 'Nun ruhen alle Wšlder' for soprano, violin and harp (1911) [19:31]
Marcel DUPR… (1886-1971) Toccata from Symphony No.2, op.26 (1929) [6:57]

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