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James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
Organ Works
Kenga e Krushqve [4:30]*
Gaudeamus in loci pace [6:11]
St Andrews' Suite [8:05]
Offertorium [4:42]
Le tombeau de Georges Rouault [14:09]
White Note Paraphrase [2:11]
Meditation [6:18]*
Wedding Introit [2:52]
Toccata [7:47]*
*Premiere Recordings
Stephen Farr (organ)
rec. 11-12 February 2020, the Rieger Organ of St. Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland

I have enjoyed James MacMillan’s music ever since he was Composer in Residence at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. I made it a point to attend as many concerts of his music there as I could. I know a lot of his orchestral music, but lately I have become more interested in his chamber works and especially his church music. I now have quite a few recordings of his wonderfully atmospheric choral music.

I first met MacMillan’s organ works through the inclusion of the odd piece on discs of his choral works. I was also lucky enough to hear a few years ago a live performance of St Andrews’ Suite. This survey of his complete organ music at time of recording contains three world premieres. He has composed for organ throughout his career, but oddly there is little music for solo organ. The disc contains pieces composed for various occasions, including the Wedding Introit, written for his own wedding in 1983. There is a variety of styles and personalities. There are intimate pieces that leave you wanting to turn the volume up; and then there are pieces that, if you did crank up the volume, have you scrambling to turn it down: the composer pulls out all the stops, and you are faced with a wall of sound.

The disc opens with one of the premiere recordings, the splendid Kenga e Krushqve from 2018. The piece give the disc a Scottish feel, though tempered with the spirit of an Albanian folk song. It was composed for the wedding of MacMillan’s son to his Albanian fiancée: a quite wonderful celebration of two cultures blended into one.

There follows one of MacMillan’s most popular organ pieces, Gaudeamus in loci pace. The title, ‘Let us rejoice in the peace of this place’, hints at the flavour of the piece. Its tender serenity and sense of calm celebrate the golden jubilee of the re-founding of the Benedictine community of Pluscarden Abbey in 1998. Its blend of plainchant themes with music ‘like a slip-jig’ gives it a uniquely meditative feel.

As I noted, I have only heard live the 2013 three-movement St Andrews' Suite, with a very fine last final movement. My friend who performed it is quite proficient, but the parish organ he played it on cannot compare to the grandeur of the Rieger Organ of St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh, and to the wonderful acoustic. It is nice to have a version on disc (especially as my friend had a stroke a few years ago and is only now getting back to playing again).

Now we come to the Offertorium of 1986, which once again offers the listener some meditative passages, this time combined with music which has a Scottish folk lilt, quite wonderful.

The largest work, from 2003, is the Le tombeau de Georges Rouault. It is a tour de force for the performer. This highly demanding work is a remembrance of the French painter, draughtsman and print artist Georges Rouault. Its many shifts and turns of texture and character make it the most virtuosic piece here. Stephen Farr brings it off with aplomb.

Meditation from 2010 draws on thematic material that MacMillan employed in his Qui meditabitur, and has an equally meditative plainsong bent. The Toccata from 2019, the most recent piece here, was composed for John Scott Whiteley to perform at that year’s Three Choirs Festival at Gloucester. It has a virtuosic character with changes in mood and temperament as it swings from the usual Toccata-like rhythms and dancelike themes through plainchant to traditional music. All this makes this piece a real crowdpleaser and a fine conclusion to this disc.

Stephen Farr’s performance is faultless. The music calls for, and receives, the best from St. Giles’ Cathedral Rieger Organ. This is aided by the excellent recording which helps to bring out the many-dimensional sounds of Edinburgh’s Cathedral acoustic and its fantastic organ. The booklet notes give great insight into the composer and his music. It is such a fine disc that I can only hope that James MacMillan composes more music for the organ, and that Stephen Farr gets to record a second volume.

Stuart Sillitoe

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