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Eastbourne Experience – Volume 1
Alexander Eadon (organ)
rec. 2019, St Saviour’s Church, Eastbourne, UK WILLOWHAYNE RECORDS WHR060 [71:20]
The small Hampshire-based label, Willowhayne Records, has been releasing a series of recordings on large organs in the UK (and one in South Africa) under the title “Experience”. The experience is a very real one of the sound of the church organ and the ability of the organist, but that in itself does not make it particularly noteworthy other than as, perhaps, some kind of souvenir to be picked up after a visit. The whole project has a slightly homespun feel to it with generally rather unremarkable performances of generally rather unremarkable repertory (including many transcriptions) played on generally rather unremarkable organs which have been unremarkably recorded. The packaging, not least the booklet notes by the player (printed over a faint map of the area) has, like the music, the organ, the organist and the recording, a sense of worthy enthusiasm about it.
While this is a series which does not seem aimed at either the serious collector or ardent seeker after organ discs which present a fine instrument, a distinguished player or unusual repertory, it does fill a very useful role in the world of organ recordings. It provides a snapshot of the kind of stuff most people get to hear if they wander into any large church and hear a local organist in recital mode. And since this very backbone to the UK organ scene is woefully ignored by record labels, for all the mundanity and uninspired worthiness of these Experience discs, they are a highly valuable resource to be treasured, not for what they are, but for what they represent.
Alexander Eadon’s biography does not mention any direct connection with St Saviour’s Church Eastbourne, although it does tell us he is currently Assistant Director of Music at Eastbourne College. But he is no stranger to the CD catalogues having produced, among others, recordings on the Priory label at Oundle School where he was previously Choirmaster, and an earlier Willowhayne “Experience” disc from Arundel Cathedral. He is certainly a fine player who has chosen a suitably varied programme to show off both his own skills as an organist and the thoroughly English qualities of the 1926 Walker organ which, as the booklet notes point out, “speaks incredibly loudly into the building”. That sense of an almost overwhelming presence in a building which certainly sounds rather too small adequately to accommodate it, is well conveyed in the Willowhayne recording.
As for the programme, I think it best to skate over the two transcriptions which frame the programme; neither Suppé’s Light Cavalry nor Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever (played here as a duet with the Director of Music at St Saviour’s, Paul Collins) really belong in this kind of environment and they sound both self-conscious and silly. However, two mainstays of the repertory – Franck’s A minor Chorale and Mendelssohn’s Sonata No.2 – sound just right, are given lively and solid performances, and show off the true nature of this instrument most effectively. Perhaps the most successful performances here are of Goss-Custard’s delightfully insouciant Chelsea Fayre and William Harris’s Preludes. Significantly both these works belong very much to the era of this instrument, and so we should not be surprised that they come off so well, but full praise to Eadon who plays them with pleasing sensitivity and an astute feel for the style.
While I am delighted that Healey Willan’s set of Chorale Preludes, including the marvellous one on a melody by Melchior Vulpius (many will recognise this as one of the tunes for the hymn “The Strife is O’er”), somehow they do not quite come off here, and the issue is, I suspect, an organ sound which is really too cumbersome and muddy to deal with Willan’s style of writing or Eadon’s energetic approach to it. However, the inclusion of some Healey Willan on this disc is more than justified, since we read that he began his musical career as a chorister at St Saviour’s, Eastbourne.
The choice of this recording venue seems to have been largely driven by the fact that in 2017 the church celebrated the 150th anniversary of its consecration. Beyond the Willan pieces, oblique connections are drawn between this anniversary and other pieces in the programme - the Suppé, for example, was “written mere months before the consecration” – but none is quite so blatant as Robert Jones’s set of variations on “Happy Birthday” collectively entitled Birthday Suit(e). I cringe with embarrassment as I listen through this organistical silliness – almost as much as I do with the rather stop-start and contrived nature of June Nixon’s attempts to “organify” Auld Lang Syne in her Pasticcio (which also gives us a snatch of “Happy Birthday”) – but there will be plenty who take to this kind of thing, and Alexander Eadon certainly seems to be having a lot of fun here.
Marc Rochester Disc contents Franz von SUPPÉ (1819-1895)
Light Cavalry Overture (transcr. Deutsch) [8:07] Reginald GOSS-CUSTARD (1877-1956)
Chelsea Fayre [2:53] César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Chorale No.3 in A minor [13:33] Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Organ Sonata No.2 in C minor, Op.65 No.2 [9:52] William HARRIS (1883-1973)
Three Preludes for organ [8:42] Healey WILLAN (1880-1968)
Six Chorale Preludes [14:26] June NIXON (b.1952)
Pasticcio [5:41] Robert JONES (b.1945)
Birthday Suit(e) [3:16] John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
The Stars and Stripes Forever (transcr. Chenault) [4:30]