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Sir William HARRIS (1883-1973)
The Complete Organ Works
Daniel Cook (organ)
Notes included
rec. 2017/19, Durham Cathedral, UK
PRIORY PRCD1187 [78:43 + 79:54]

Seventy-four years of music: this new two-CD set of the organ music of Sir William Henry Harris ranges from the Andante in D of 1899 to the Prelude in G of 1973, later played at the funeral of Princess Diana. In those seventy-four years, Harris’ music developed from typical Victoriana, somewhat like the early organ music of his contemporary John Ireland [review ~ review] to the distinctive voice of his later works. Harris is probably best remembered today for his church music [review], but several of his works for organ are often performed and now, thanks to the hardworking Daniel Cook of Durham Cathedral, we have the totality of Harris’ music for the instrument, including a number of unpublished works that show us the true range of his’ output.

In his ninety years, Harris occupied a number of important positions, starting as Assistant Organist at Lichfield, and serving as Organist, successively, at New College, Oxford, and Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. He then became Organist and Choirmaster at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, where he served for 28 years. Looking over his output for organ, one is struck by the comparative paucity of chorale preludes or fantasias or other large-scale works. This is because, as pointed out by Dr John Henderson (co-author of the standard Harris biography) in his fine notes, Harris was basically a miniaturist in spite of his professional association with royal and national events. He seems to have had two goals for his organ music: that it be useful and that it be expressive. At first, these goals may seem somewhat contradictory but it is the particular attractiveness of Harris’ music that they are simultaneously accomplished.

Harris is at his best with pieces that evoke friends and places. The title Three Preludes (CD1:-Tracks 3-5) seems utilitarian enough until we become aware that second Prelude (Lament) was written in memory of an old friend who had been organist of Bristol Cathedral and that Combewater, the title of the third, was the home of Harris’ old friend the organist-composer Henry Ley. A decade later, the four pieces from 1963 (CD 1: Tracks 12-15) were written as memorial for Ley. A more cheerful example is the 1957 Miniature Suite (CD2: Tracks 3-5) written in more or less Baroque style for a friend who was a great admirer of Handel.

Harris did not totally avoid large-scale works. The Fantasies on “Monk’s Gate” (CD 1-Track 21) and “Babylon’s Streams” (CD-2-Track 21) are among his best-known organ works and his most complex. The composer’s largest piece for organ is the sonata from 1938 (CD 1-Tracks 7-9), more than twenty minutes long. As Dr Henderson points out, this is not his most successful piece. For me the first movement opens strongly, but the material is not developed in an interesting way, while the second movement’s material is not so interesting in general but Harris does a lot with it. Fortunately, the third movement is more consistent. In 1963, at the age of 80, Harris began a second organ sonata but grew dissatisfied with it and recast three of the movements as the Festal Voluntary (CD 2-Track 9), Retrospect (CD 2-Track 10), and Scherzetto (CD 1-Track 16). It’s regrettable that the composer did not stick to his original plan, for this music might have made quite an eloquent sonata.

Daniel Cook is one of the stalwarts of the Priory label, having recorded the complete organ works of Brewer, Sumsion, Dyson, Alcock, and especially Stanford [see reviews]. Now established as Master of the Choristers and Organist of Durham Cathedral he uses all the resources of the great Willis organ there to showcase the great variety of music on these two CDs. I was especially impressed with his playing of the above-mentioned music from Harris’ abortive Sonata No. 2 and the Three Preludes of 1952, and he does Harris proud with his performance of “Babylon Streams”, appropriately placed last on the second CD. All told, this is a magnificently performed and recorded set of music that does full justice to the composer.

William Kreindler

CD 1
​1) Flourish for an Occasion
2) Improvisation on the Old 124th
3) Three Preludes (1952): i Pastoral
4) Three Preludes (1952): ii Lament
5) Three Preludes (1952): iii Combewater
6) Andante in D
7) Sonata in A minor: i Moderato con moto
8) Sonata in A minor: ii Adagio espressivo
9) Sonata in A minor: iii Maestoso
10) Elegy
11) Postlude
12) Meditation
13) Elegy
14) Interlude
15) Reverie
16) Scherzetto (A Frolic)
17) Three Organ Voluntaries: i In Voluntary
18) Three Organ Voluntaries: ii Interlude
19) Three Organ Voluntaries: iii Out Voluntary
20) A Fancy
21) Fantasy on an English Folk Tune (Monk’s Gate)

CD 2
1) Processional March
2) Fantasy Prelude
3) Miniature Suite: i Introduction and Fugue
4) Miniature Suite: ii Pastorale
5) Miniature Suite: iii Romance and Scherzetto
6) Allegretto in F sharp minor
7) Epilogue on Dix
8) Reverie in A flat
9) Festal Voluntary
10) Retrospection (meditation)
11) Four Short Pieces: i Prelude
12) Four Short Pieces: ii Reverie
13) Four Short Pieces: iii Interlude
14) Four Short Pieces: iv Scherzetto
15) Fantasy on Easter Hymn
16) Three opening Voluntaries; i Pastoral-Prelude
17) Three opening Voluntaries; ii Meditation
18) Three opening Voluntaries; iii Evening Melody
19) Prelude in G
20) Saraband Processional (1949)
21) Fantasy on “Babylon’s Streams”

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