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Christmas Bells – Organ Music from Belfast Cathedral
Matthew Owens (organ)
rec. 24-25 June 2021, St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, UK
RESONUS RES10293 [78:29]

The vast majority of Christmas CDs focus on choral music, which is understandable since the sung words usually make the music largely irrelevant at other seasons of the year. With organ music, things are different. There are no words to seasonalise the melodies which, as often as not, have a past - if not a current - life beyond Christmas. And where they are based on specific Christmas melodies, the music itself is often of sufficient interest to warrant their performance at any time of the year. That’s certainly the case with Bach’s Canonic Variations on Vom Himmel hoch, which is more than well represented on discs which, in other respects, have no association with Christmas. To a certain extent, that is also the case with Garth Edmondson’s Toccata on the same melody which, while often heard at Christmas, is too spectacular and – especially when, as heard here, the chorale theme is thundered out with monumental power on the Belfast 32 foot Bombardon and recorded with tremendous presence – spine-tingling, to be confined to just a few days towards the end of the year. In fact, in this collection of 15 Christmas-themed pieces, only Philip Wilby’s Ding Dong! Merrily on High would not seem right either side of December 25th; but there again, being just a smoochy reharmonization of a famous Christmas ditty, it’s a moot point whether it is worth hearing on December 25th itself.

Perhaps less well-known, and therefore fortunately aired on this Christmas-themed CD, are Flor Peeters’ two chorale preludes, Wie schŲn leuchtet der Morgenstern and Vom Himmel hoch, clever bits of pseudo-Bach but only the latter revealing certain charms on the Belfast organ. Far more musically rewarding are the two items from Guilmant’s Livre de NoŽls. The NoŽl Ecossais does not seem to have anything at all Christmassy about it, but it is so outrageously archetypically Scots, that it deserves an airing. One of my first organ records was a 45 rpm disc of George Thalben-Ball, looking imperious on the front cover and playing with his customary panache a brief programme which included Guilmant’s Introduction and Variations on an Old Polish NoŽl (the tune we usually associate with the words “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”). I haven’t heard it much since then, and it is good to have it here, even if Matthew Owens seems rather more heavy-handed when it comes to registration than did the great GTB at the Temple Church.

If Christmas organ CDs are relatively rare, even rarer are recordings of the Harrison & Harrison organ of St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast. The instrument (which was under the care of Northern Ireland organ builder David McElderry until his death earlier in the year and to whom this disc is dedicated) has not been significantly altered since the last rebuild in 1975, and while what is euphemistically referred to as “The Troubles” kept most recording engineers away in the last century, now that things are a lot more calm in Belfast, they have hardly been beating a path to the cathedral doors. The reason is unfortunately obvious with this CD. It may pack a hefty punch, but the instrument is largely devoid of character – not helped, I am afraid, by Owens’ tendency to over-register much of this repertory – and it is set in the most ghastly acoustic, part-swimming bath, part-aircraft hangar. Resonus’s Adam Binks has gone for the big sound, which is probably the best option, but we lose any real detail from Owens’ playing, and neither the Daquin NoŽl Suisse nor Walther’s Partita on Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich come out smelling of Christmas roses from their bruising encounter with this Beast of Belfast.

Pieces by Gary Davison (written especially for this recording), Philip Moore, and Matthew Owens are billed as being recorded for the first time, as is the piece which lends its title to the disc, Christmas Bells written for Matthew Owens by Howard Skempton. It’s not particularly bell-like, nor particularly Christmassy – in fact, it’s rather sombre with its long sustained dissonances and four-square rhythmic patterns – but it does give us a rare opportunity to discern out of all that acoustic murk, something a little more delicate from the Belfast organ.

Marc Rochester

Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Canonic Variations on “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her”, BWV769a [12:49]
Alexandre GUILMANT (1837-1911)
Introduction et Variations sur un Ancien NoŽl Polonais, Op 60 No 2 [4:16]
NoŽl Ecossais, Op 60 No 1 [4:24]
Philip MOORE (b. 1943)
A Fugal Flourish on “Personent Hodie” (2013) [3:52]
Prelude on “Irby” (2014) [3:20]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694-1772)
NoŽl Suisse [4:50]
Matthew OWENS (b. 1971)
Prelude on “Yorkshire” [3:58]
Johann Georg WALTHER (1684-1748)
Partita on “Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich” [8:21]
Flor PEETERS (1903-1986)
Chorale Prelude: “Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her”, Op 70 No 3 [2:16]
Chorale Prelude: “Wie schŲn leuchtet der Morgenstern”, Op 68 No 7 [3:39]
Philip WILBY (b. 1949)
Ding Dong! Merrily on High [2:02]
Gary DAVISON (b. 1961)
Seven Versets on “Divinum Mysterium” [13:30]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Die Hirten an der Krippe, S.186 [3:48]
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947)
Christmas Bells [2:13]
Garth EDMUNDSON (1892-1971)
Toccata on “Vom Himmel hoch” [4:53]

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