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Cecilia McDOWALL (b 1951)
Works for Organ
William Fox (organ)
Lucy Humphris (trumpet)
rec. March 2020, Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington, London. DDD
NAXOS 8.579077 [65:04]

This new CD of music by Cecilia McDowall boasts no fewer than six first recordings, one of which is the set of six pieces that comprises the O Antiphon Sequence. By the strangest of coincidences, within a couple of weeks of the arrival of this Naxos CD I received another disc, issued by Hyperion, which also included a recording of the Sequence. It was a close-run thing, but Naxos just won the race by the narrowest of margins: Alexander Hamilton made his recording for Hyperion on 9 March 2020, just four days after William Fox had concluded his Naxos sessions. I’m going to review both discs separately since there’s no other overlap of repertoire – indeed, the Hyperion programme consists otherwise of choral music.

William Fox is only in his mid-twenties but he already has an impressive CV; he is currently the sub organist of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, a post to which he was appointed in 2018. This is his debut CD and kudos to him for choosing to record an album devoted to the music of a living composer, much of it new to disc. The recordings were made in the presence of Cecilia McDowall.

The O Antiphon Sequence consists of seven short movements, each one of which is a meditation on one of the antiphons which are said or sung before the Magnificat at the office of Evensong or Vespers in the week leading up to Christmas. I wonder if Cecilia McDowall was inspired to undertake this composition because she’d already set one of the antiphons, ‘O Oriens’, as an unaccompanied choral piece. Each piece in the set is based on a note in the diatonic scale: C – G – D – A – E – B – F. The pieces are ordered in the chronological sequence used in December, so the set begins with ‘O Sapientia’. This is a fairly subdued little piece which is founded upon insistent rhythms. ‘O Adonai’ is loud, vigorous and toccata-like at times. It’s only a very short piece (1:38 in this performance) but it’s very exciting. A complete contrast is afforded by ‘O Radix Jesse’, in which the music is hushed and thoughtful. At the centre of the sequence is ‘O Clavis David’. In this antiphon, as William Fox reminds us in his notes, the words ‘You open and none may close’ occur. McDowall’s response to this idea is an exciting toccata which features dancing rhythms in the treble register and potent writing for the pedals. It’s an exciting piece. Then comes ‘O Oriens’. The origins of this music lie in a setting of the antiphon which Cecilia McDowall composed in 2012 for the choir of Merton College, Oxford. I’ve heard the choral piece several times and I think it’s a fine one. I’ve not seen a copy of either the vocal score or of the organ piece but I did refresh my memory by listening to the choral setting before auditioning this CD. The music of the two pieces is, as Fox says, “allied” and the same tonality of E is used, but I’m as sure as I can be that, despite the close relationship between the two, the organ piece is not an arrangement or transcription of the choral setting. There follows ‘O Rex Gentium’. Here the music features the constant repetition of a four-note rhythmic figure in the left hand, highly decorated writing in the right hand and mysterious goings-on in the pedals. McDowall rounds off the sequence with ‘O Emmanuel’. With the birth of Christ imminent, one might expect a musical response to this antiphon would be up-beat but Cecilia McDowall is more subtle than that. Her piece is based on the melody of the familiar plainchant hymn, ‘Veni, Veni, Emmanuel’ and she offers a muted meditation on that theme. There is nothing showy or celebratory about this music and I think that’s the right way to end what has been a sequence of thoughtful pieces. The O Antiphon Sequence is an excellent collection and William Fox plays it with great assurance and imagination.

The programme contains another set of antiphons, three this time. These are adaptations by Cecilia McDowall, made in 2006, of earlier choral settings of Marian antiphons; she has scored these revised versions for trumpet and organ. Ave Regina, originally composed in 2004, is described in the notes as “a gentle and lyrical response” to the words of the antiphon. To be honest, I think the music sounds a bit too up-front in this performance. Lucy Humphris offers gleaming trumpet tone but the melodic line she plays seems too loud to me. Whether that’s how the trumpet part is written I can’t say, but somehow it doesn’t quite sound right to me. Ave Maria was also composed in its choral version in 2004. Here, the trumpet part is muted and I think that’s an inspired decision because immediately the sound of what can be a very prominent instrument becomes more subdued and that fits very well with the intimate character of the piece. Regina Cli was originally written in 2005. This is a joyful, dancing piece and Lucy Humphris’ shining tone is ideally suited.

William Fox has included a number of short individual pieces on his programme, all of which are interesting and also expertly played. My ear was caught particularly by Celebration. In 2013 the University of Portsmouth conferred an Honorary Doctorate on Cecilia McDowall and the following year, as a result of a commission from the university, she was able to return the compliment with Celebration, a piece expressly designed to accompany the academic procession at graduation ceremonies. My goodness, I’d have liked to hear this music when I graduated in the dim and distant past! An imposing pedal part underpins jubilant, dancing music played on the manuals. There are some contrasting, more subdued passages but, essentially, this is a thrilling piece. William Fox draws some full-throated sounds out of the organ in a performance that makes a cracking start to his recital.

A very significant element in the programme is the George Herbert Trilogy, composed between 2010 and 2013. Given the different dates of composition it may well be that the pieces – and the first one in particular – were individually conceived, but I’m slightly puzzled by the decision to split the three pieces up in the programme and to play them out of order. The first that we hear is Sacred and Hallowed Fire, which William Fox plays in its revised version dating from 2020. The music was inspired by lines from the poem The Temple by George Herbert (1593-1633). The lines in question are reproduced in the booklet, an excellent decision. Fox describes the music as “menacing and intense” and I can confidently say that there’s nothing else like it on his programme. The music is bold and dramatic and even when the volume level drops its nature is still oppressive. In the loud passages the music crackles with energy and though the composition only plays for 7:02 it is, in every sense, a big piece. The other two pieces draw their inspiration, and titles, from Herbert’s poem Prayer (I). Unsurprisingly, Church Bells Beyond the Stars has a lot of bell-like invention on the manuals but the predominant tone of the music is gentle, not least in the lyrical central section. The writing is rhythmically intricate which means that the bell-like writing is far from conventional. As the title suggests, we hear these bells as if from afar. Sounding Heaven and Earth is mostly a toccata but the writing involves rhythmic instability which adds to the excitement, I think. The end of the piece is especially imposing and it makes a terrific finish to the recital.

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of music by Cecilia McDowall – mainly orchestral and choral – and I’ve consistently liked and been impressed by what I’ve heard. However, until now I wasn’t really aware of her output for the organ and that makes this recital by William Fox all the more welcome. The music is consistently attractive and it’s full of interest. Fox is a splendid advocate for all the pieces he plays. The recordings were made using the 1963 Walker organ in the Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington. According to the booklet, where you’ll find a full specification of the organ, the instrument, which was renovated in 2005-06, “was a radical English instrument when it was built” and it incorporates “sounds and voicing typical in North German and Dutch organs, alongside French-style reeds”. It sounds very handsome here and clearly includes a good range of resources and sonorities which enable William Fox to conjure imaginatively a wide variety of colours from it in this recital.

The recording was produced and engineered by Adrian Lucas. As a former cathedral organist himself, he is well qualified to know how to present an organ to best advantage in a recording. The sound on this CD has plenty of presence and a good dynamic range. William Fox brings a performer’s insight and enthusiasm to his useful booklet notes.

This is a fine and enjoyable disc which serves Cecilia McDowall’s organ music very well indeed.

John Quinn

Celebration (2014) [7:14]
First Flight (2019) [5:43]
O Antiphon Sequence (2018) [18:14]
George Herbert Trilogy – II. Sacred and Hallowed Fire (2013, rev. 2020) [7:02]
Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hlt (2011) [3:26]
Three Antiphons (2006) [7:42]
George Herbert Trilogy – III. Church Bells Beyond the Stars (2013) [5:23]
Four Piano Solos – No 3. Pavane (1999, arr William Fox (b 1995) for organ (2020) [4:23]
George Herbert Trilogy – I. Sounding Heaven and Earth (2010) [5:29]

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