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Joseph JONGEN (1873-1953)
Sonata Eroica [19:12]
Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
The Dancing Pipes [10:22]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale 'Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' [32:38]
Alexander Ffinch (organ)
rec. 2018, Cheltenham College Chapel, Cheltenham, England
DIVINE ART DDA25193 [62:05]

The notes tell us that the title Transformations is not just a reference to each of the three works included on this recording contain musical transformations of themes, but also that it is the first recording made on the Norman and Beard organ at Cheltenham College Chapel since its latest extensive restoration by Harrison and Harrison in 2017. Whatever the reason behind the title, the result is an excellent recital of organ music which includes the premiere recording of Jonathan Dove’s The Dancing Pipes.

The recital opens with the Sonata Eroica by the Belgian composer, Joseph Jongen. Born in Liège, where César Franck was also born, Jongen is perhaps best known for his Symphonie Concertante of 1926, a monumental work that is regarded as one of the finest symphonies composed for organ and orchestra. I must say that while I like the Symphonie, I do prefer this sonata, although in reality a sonata it isn’t; it can be best described as a continuous set of variations, which are quite symphonic in stature. This is now my third recording of this work and it is by far the slowest, with John Scott Whiteley whipping through the piece in 15:46 on his Priory disc (PRCD 731), sounding to me a tad too fast; Christian Schmitt on his CPO recording (777 593-2) does it in a more stately 17:14; whereas here we have to wait for another two minutes for the piece to finish. This, however, does not detract from the music, as Alexander Ffinch manages to drive the tension of the piece well, while exploiting the full dynamic range of the Cheltenham College instrument.

This is followed by what soon became my favourite piece on this disc, Jonathan Dove’s The Dancing Pipes. Originally composed for Thomas Trotter in 2014, for the celebration of 250th anniversary of the Snetzler organ in St. Laurence’s Church in Ludlow in Shropshire, this is only Dove’s second work for the solo organ and shows a great understanding of the capabilities of the organ. I imagine that he will go on to compose further pieces for the instrument. Strongly rhythmic and energetic, it fairly skips along and is based upon “a little dancing figure” which occurred to the composer. However the music is affected by other forces that Dove introduces, it is that little dancing motif which, not transformed, just adapted a little, remains dominant throughout. It sounds really good on the Cheltenham College instrument in the acoustic of the Chapel and Ffinch gives a powerful premiere performance which I will return to often.

The final work on the disc is my least favourite, as I have never been a great fan of Liszt, That said, I do have another recording of this work, albeit part of the Brilliant Classics set 500 Years of Organ Music (95310/38), with Hans-Jürgen Kaiser at the organ of Schwerin Cathedra It is also available as a single disc (93789). I remember being not too impressed when reviewing that box set, but here in Ffinch’s performance it sounds better, perhaps because it isn’t so ponderous; it is, after all, nearly five minutes quicker overall than the Kaiser, and boy does it need it. It is based on a chorale sung by the Anabaptists in Meyerbeer’s five-act opera La prophète, and Liszt seemingly brings out the full range of emotions from the opera. The result is, therefore, a piece which runs the emotional gamut, with many twists and turns, something which Ffinch pulls off with aplomb. This is a recording of the Liszt that I would listen to again, which, having compared the recordings, I would not say about the Kaiser.

Ffinch certainly puts the rebuilt Cheltenham College Chapel organ through its paces, the result being an interesting collection of pieces, exhilaratingly played. I particularly enjoyed his performance of the Jongen, and the Dove is wonderful; even the Liszt isn’t that bad under his hands. The organ is captured at its best by the recording, and the notes are also very good. This is an exciting and welcome addition to my collection, the Dove in particular being a real find.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: John France

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