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Northern Lights
Christopher Herrick (organ)
rec. 6-8 August 2020, Organ of Nidaros Cathedral, Trondheim, Norway
HYPERION CDA68376 [71:58]

I visited the Trondheim Nidaros Cathedral in 2011. This remarkable place of worship dates back to the time shortly after the death in 1030 of King Olav II, who would become the Patron Saint of Norway. Built over a 230-year period, the most significant Gothic monument in Norway is the northernmost medieval cathedral in the world. The music is played on the remarkable Steinmeyer organ, installed in 1930 and rebuilt in 2014, transformed by Orgelbau Kuhn AG from Switzerland. The full organ specification appears in the liner notes.

The recital gets off to a lively start with the Spanish-infused tour de force Yes! by the Norwegian composer Mons Leidvin Takle. It is full of catchy melodies, robust rhythms and delicious harmonies. One hopes this exciting work catches on in the UK.

Iain Farrington’s Amazing grace is a set of variations on the well-known hymn tune. It is the third number of a cycle Lay My Burden Down, which features five pieces based on African-American spirituals and traditional songs. Amazing Grace is not my favourite tune: ever since the Pipes and Drums and the Military Band of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards reached the Top of the Pops in 1972, I have had a strong negative reaction to this song. But in Farrington’s jazzed and bluesed exploration, it hits the spot. It captures the full emotion of the hymn and the tune.

There follows Theodore Dubois’s Fiat Lux, which develops from quiet music into a powerful peroration. It is taken from his Douze pièces nouvelles pour orgue published in 1892. Fiat Lux was dedicated to the English organist W. T. Best. The title is derived from the biblical book of Genesis – “Let there be Light”. The music mirrors a course from when the earth was without form and void to a glorious illumination of the Universe and the Soul. It is a compelling theological and musical statement.

The liner notes explain that the Danish composer Christian Praestholm (b. 1972) has written “nearly 300 hymn preludes, which are widely-played liturgically and in concert, particularly in Denmark”. Three chorale preludes here show diverse musical effects. The first, See the golden sun rising from the ocean, opens with a churning sound down in the depths, before building up to a mighty C major chord – like the Dubois piece from darkness to light. The second prelude is less profound. The sun is rising in the east opens slowly, moves into a “jazzy allegro that toys with strict fugato”, but soon goes its own way to a quiet ending. Lord, you give us life and happiness is a full-blown warhorse that includes lots of repeated notes and chordal figurations. No composition dates are given for these Preludes.

I was delighted that Christopher Herrick chose to include Percy E. Fletcher’s two remarkable pieces, completed in 1915. Much of his music has been consigned to the archives but the Epic Symphony for brass band is often dusted down for performance. Fletcher wrote a wide range of music. Much of it was “light”, often as part of his theatrical work in London, where he worked at a variety of venues including the Savoy, Drury Lane and The Prince of Wales. For many years he was the musical director at His Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket. A couple of tantalising orchestral scores in his catalogue surely deserve revival: Parisienne Sketches (1914) and the At Gretna Green (1926). The virtuosic Festival Toccata, written for the organist and composer Edwin Lemare, is a brilliant piece often heard at weddings and as an encore. Despite its seeming complexity, it is just about playable by the much-maligned “gifted amateur”. The beautiful Fountain Reverie opens with will o’ the wisp, undulating arpeggios supported by a tune played on the swell organ. This has definite hints of Louis Vierne. There is a slightly more dramatic middle section.

Anders S. Börjesson’s 2015 Toccata “Herren, vår Gud, är en konung” (Praise the Lord, the Almighty King of Creation) is typically rhythmic from end to end. It is based on an old German chorale melody. The overall impetus never really lets up, with much dancelike music. Like all good examples of the genre, it ends with a compelling coda.

German composer Hans-André Stamm’s Toccata giocosa, written in 2009, is an attractive work that lives up to its title. The music is carefree from the first note to the last. This “non-stop” music builds up from a “light and airy” beginning to a “thunderous and triumphal ending”.

Eugène Gigout’s ever-popular Toccata in B minor “employs every trick of the trade generally found in the French organ toccata”. It is full of “flourishes and figurations”, deploys the usual powerful pedal part, and builds up to a striking conclusion. It remains one of the most admired and played concert pieces from the French organ repertoire. It is the fourth number of the Dix Pièces published in 1892.

Johannes Brahms’s Prelude and Fugue in G minor WoO10, originally conceived for pedal piano, was completed in 1857 when Brahms was in his mid-twenties. Lost for many years, it was rediscovered in 1927 amongst the papers in Clara Schumann’s estate. The entire work, really a homage to Baroque-era organ music, employs many clichés from that era. It has been pointed out that formally and thematically it owes much to Bach's Prelude and Fugue in G minor BWV 535. Christopher Herrick writes that he has taken “modest liberties with Brahms’s pianistic writing”.

The title of Pietro Yon’s short but potent Second concert study 'Flying feet' (No. 3 of Three Compositions for organ) says all that need to be said. The bit about the “Feet” is a later appellation. Pedalboard glissandi up and down, chromatic scales on the keyboards, and complex interaction of the parts suggest that this “impossible” étude is all over the place. It would have made a wonderful finale to this recital – only it does not.

The final track is a rather doleful Wedding March by the Norwegian composer Sverre Eftestøl. It is a nice enough piece for Matins but lacks any pizzazz for a wedding service. One would imagine the happy couple a little disappointed and downhearted as they exit the church and head towards married bliss.

It hardly needs saying that Christopher Herrick’s recital is superb. The ideal sound gives the impression of “being there”. The liner notes give all the information required for an intelligent appreciation of this repertoire. I would have liked all the works’ dates, and sources when part of a collection, included in the track listing.

One thing though. I would not have put four toccatas back-to-back in the batting order. Perhaps something a little more intimate might be interposed here. That said, this is a well thought out recital, with lots of new discoveries (at least for me) and not a few “old favourites”.

John France

Previous review: Gary Higginson

Mons Leidvin TAKLE (b. 1942)
Yes! (2015) [6:01]
Iain FARRINGTON (b. 1977)
Amazing grace (No. 3 of Lay my burden down) (2017) [7:57]
Théodore DUBOIS (1837-1924)
Fiat lux (No. 8 of Douze pièces nouvelles pour orgue) (1892) [4:14]
Christian PRAESTHOLM (b. 1972)
See the golden sun rising from the ocean, Op. 32 No. 1 [5:41]
The sun is rising in the east, Op. 11 No. 13 [2:18]
Lord, you give us life and happiness, Op. 22 No. 110 [3:16]
Percy Eastman FLETCHER (1879-1932)
Fountain reverie (1915) [6:08]
Festival toccata (1915) [7:21]
Anders S BÖRJESSON (b. 1975)
Toccata (2015) [4:26]
Hans-André STAMM (b. 1958)
Toccata giocosa (2009) [5:48]
Eugène GIGOUT (1844-1925)
Toccata in B minor No. 4 of Dix pièces pour orgue (1890) [3:28]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Prelude and Fugue in G minor WoO10 (1857) [8:37]
Pietro YON (1886-1943)
Second Concert Study “Flying feet” (No. 3 of Three Compositions for organ) (1913/1915) [4:18]
Sverre EFTESTØL (b. 1952)
Wedding march (1982, rev.1988) [ 2:20]

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