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From the Ground Up: The Organ of Peterborough Cathedral
David Hill (organ)
rec. 2019, Peterborough Cathedral REGENTREGCD539 [67:48]
This CD of organ music from Peterborough Cathedral is exactly how I like a recital to be. There are a few old favourites, some new pieces and one or two works that I have only a vague recollection of having heard before - and, it goes without saying that they are all brilliantly played by David Hill.
This recital opens with Walter Alcock’s sizeable Introduction and Passacaglia which was completed in 1933. The liner notes explain that the work was dedicated to Alcock’s friend and fellow composer, Harold Darke. It was first heard at that year’s Three Choirs Festival in Hereford. Despite some introverted (dare I say dreary?) moments in the Passacaglia, this work builds up to an impressive climax. It is interesting to recall that Alcock played organ at three 20th century Coronations at Westminster Abbey: Edward VII, George V and George VI.
I first heard Herbert Murrill’s vibrant Carillon (1949) for organ whilst page-turning at a recital in the early 1970s. It is a piece that I have relished ever since. The work is a miniature toccata with complex rhythms, shifting metres, a pentatonic melody, and bold chords. Likewise, I enjoyed Murrill’s lovely Postlude on a Ground also composed in 1949. It creates a mood of strength, mitigated by repose that would seem at home in any Anglican cathedral or parish church. The Prelude begins quietly, before building up to a loud conclusion. It is characterised by well-wrought and interesting counterpoint. Herbert Murrill is a composer who I know precious little about. I must investigate…
The Passacaglia by John E West (1899, not 1910, as stated in the liner notes) is relatively short, yet there is much variety and considerable opportunity for the organist to explore the tonal resources of a large Romantic organ such as at Peterborough Cathedral. Much of the music is restrained, but some of the variations explode into life. It is an elegant and valuable new discovery for me.
The lovely ‘Reverie’ on the Hymn Tune ‘University’ (1922) by Harvey Grace creates a numinous atmosphere. It is appropriate as an introductory voluntary for a Book of Common Prayer Evensong in any Cathedral or Parish Church where they do not employ a music group to entertain the ‘audience.’ Grace’s other work is more upbeat and intense: Resurgam (Fantasy–Prelude for organ) (1922) is really a recital piece. The work’s opening is restrained but soon builds up into a considerable display of fireworks. There is a quieter moment before the long final peroration. Look out for the marvellous glissando towards the end. The clue to this work’s overall mood is that the hymn tune ‘Resurgam’ is often used to sing ‘Blessing, honour, thanks and praise, pay we, gracious God, to thee.’
I did not know the short ‘Ground’ by the Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons. This is a delightful piece that works its contrapuntal magic on the ‘ground bass’ first heard in the opening bars. It progresses through some charming and witty variations, the highlight being a passage of ‘dazzling semiquavers.’ A ‘Ground’ was published in the important Musica Britannica series Volume 20. The liner notes state that it was in Volume 26. This would appear to be ‘Consort Music’ by John Jenkins.
Complementing this piece is Healey Willan’s Choral Prelude on a melody by Orlando Gibbons which was composed in 1950. This tune is often used to accompany the words ‘Jesu Grant me this I pray’. Willian’s prelude is perfectly stated in its soft and slow sense of resignation.
The masterwork on this CD is Willan’s splendid Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (pub.1919). I was surprised that the date given in the liner notes is 1969, as the composer had died the previous year. It was written because of a challenge from his friend Dalton Baker, who had stated that it took a German ‘sense of order’ to compose a worthy passacaglia. Willan began the piece on board a train whilst returning to his summer home at Lake Simcoe, in southern Ontario, Canada. The work is clearly inspired by Bach, Reger and Rheinberger, but the result is a completely convincing and original composition. There is an element of theatricality in some of this work’s progress. The Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue remains one of the great organ works of the 20th century and is given a superlative performance here.
Why is the date of Richard Blackford’s Prelude and Passacaglia for organ kept a secret? It is not given in the liner notes, nor is it easy to find this detail online. Blackford is published by Nimbus and Novello, but their respective webpages did not help me find the date of this piece. For some reason, the score is not available from Nimbus until 6 November 2020. The composer’s website does not refer to this piece. According to the liner notes it was composed for the present organist, and I understand that this is the work’s first recording, so it may be its premiere performance too. This nine-minute work has some interesting moments, but if I am honest, I found it a little tame. On the plus side, it does make some interesting use of the ‘colours of the organ’
The magnificent organ currently at Peterborough Cathedral dates to 1894. William Hill built a new organ, which incorporated some pipework from earlier instruments. In 1930, it was rebuilt with electro-pneumatic action and some revoicing, by Hill, Norman, and Baird. Half a century later, the organ was restored by Harrison & Harrison. After a fire in the Cathedral in 2001, the instrument was repaired and reinstated in 2004-05. The organ specification, which is given in full in the booklet, specifies that the current instrument has 89 speaking stops, over four manuals and pedals. In 2016, the entire instrument was re-tuned to ‘standard pitch’ (A-440Hz) and a new unenclosed Tuba Mirabilis was installed.
The liner notes, written by Dr Richard Longman, are impressive and include all the necessary information about the music and the composers, and a long biography of the soloist David Hill is included. Hill has had a glittering career and is one of the most prominent organists in the country. He has more than 80 records and CDs to his credit.
This is an excellent new disc of organ music that majors on late 19th/early 20th century music, Orlando Gibbons’ ‘Ground’ and Richard Blackford’s contemporary piece being the honourable exceptions.
Contents Walter ALCOCK (1861-1947)
Introduction and Passacaglia (1933) [12:11] Herbert MURRILL (1909-51)
Postlude on a Ground (1949) [3:24]
Carillon for organ (1949) [2:34] John E WEST (1863-1929)
Passacaglia in B minor (1899) [5:03] GRACE (1874-1944)
Reverie on the Hymn Tune ‘University’ (1922) [3:00]
Resurgam (Fantasy–Prelude for organ) (1922) [7:57] Harvey Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625)
Ground (Musica Britannica, no. 26) (?) [3:06] Healey WILLAN (1880-1968)
Choral Prelude on a melody by Orlando Gibbons (1950) [3:15]
Introduction, Passacaglia and Fugue (1916) [17:32] Richard BLACKFORD (b.1954)
Prelude and Passacaglia for organ [9:49]