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Freak Out – Extraordinary Music for Organ
William BOLCOM (b.1938)
Free Fantasia on “O Zion, Haste” and “How Firm a Foundation” (from Gospel Preludes Book 4) (1979-1984) [7:18]
James MACMILLAN (b.1959)
Le Tombeau de Georges Rouault (2003) [14:30]
Stephen PAULUS (1949-2014)
A Refined Reflection (from Baronian Suite) (2013) [7:31]
John FURSE (b.1951)
Moot Points (2015) [3:30]
Giles SWAYNE (b.1946)
Riff Raff (1983) [17:25]
Derek FOSTER (b.1943)
Variations on a theme by Anthony Green (2011) [4:36]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (1934-2016)
Veni Creator Spiritus (2002) [7:14]
William BOLCOM
Black Host for organ, percussion and tape (1967) [17:36]
Tom Bell (organ)
Ross Garrod (percussion) (Black Host)
rec. 17-19 October 2018 on the Grand Organ, the Royal Hospital School Chapel, Holbrook, UK
Reviewed as a digital download in mp3 format from a press preview

This is staggering stuff! My apologies by starting this review with a freak out of my own, but this is going to be one of my records of the year. Organ recordings, like organ playing itself, tend to occupy their own little ghetto of the classical world and seldom seem to break out into the mainstream other than with recordings of Bach or yet another Saint SaŽns Organ Symphony. I rather suspect a lot of organists are happy for things to stay that way! This CD seems to be determined to change things, though the rather cringeworthy title isn’t really going to help. In fairness, it comes from a direction in the score of William Bolcom’s marvellously deranged Black Host (of which a lot more later) but without that explanation I am afraid it is rather like a middle-aged man trying to “get down with the kids” and just as naff. This is particularly unfortunate, as this really is a superb recording.

That out of the way, I should also explain that I am not a specialist in organ music, so I’m afraid readers who want to know technical details about the organ used or the precise nature of Bell’s registrations are going to have to look elsewhere with my apologies. What I am able to say is that this is a highly imaginative programme of superb repertoire, mostly from this century, stunningly played and impressively recorded. Admittedly, one of the pieces is now over 50 years old and even the pieces from the 80s hardly qualify as new. They do, however, complement the other pieces extremely well.

The stylistic magpie that is William Bolcom bookends the recital and in some ways that is the guiding spirit of the enterprise. If I initially balked a little at the transformation of the organ of Royal Hospital School, Holbrook into the mighty Wurlitzer halfway through the opening Fantasia, that served as fair warning to let go of any preconceptions I had about how organ music is meant to go.

The programme is centred around three substantial pieces, each astonishing in very different ways. The first of them, James MacMillan’s Le Tombeau de Georges Rouault from 2003, is probably the most conventional of three, though I use that phrase strictly in relation to the other two big works included in this collection. I have not always been a great admirer of the Scottish composer’s work which too often seem to me to stretch too little material too far. This piece is gripping from start to its startling finish. It takes its inspiration from the French painter’s Catholicism (always an important feature of MacMillan’s music) as well as the darkness and the compassionate attitude to those at the fringes of society that are features of his art. It begins in a place of mystery and austerity, alternating with more mobile angular music which Richard Dunnett, writing in the Independent, likened to “clowning” and speculated that they might in fact be “the viral cavortings of the Holy Spirit itself.” It is this aspect of the music in particular that links it to the playful, the outrageous and the downright strange in the other pieces.

Which seems to be a pretty neat summation of the second of the bigger pieces that anchor the programme – Giles Swayne’s Riff Raff. Its title is a reflection of the composer’s concern at the widening gulf between what he terms “classical music and its popular roots”. It is certainly an exceptionally communicative work without in the least sacrificing its seriousness. As with the MacMillan it works itself up to an apocalyptic climax which is positively cinematic in its scope – nothing of the dusty organ loft about this music! Indeed, if MacMillan evokes the shadowy, claustrophobic world of Rouault then Swayne conjures up wide open spaces and ecstatic dance rhythms with more than a nod to the world of rock. An extended sequence of glittering rhythmic figures also takes in minimalism but, like Bolcom, Swayne seems to be able to absorb all manner of influences without losing his own distinctive voice. I can tell that Bell gets one hell out of a kick out of playing this music. Throughout the entire recital there is a palpable sense of infectious enthusiasm. For me, this piece by Swayne is the highlight amongst highlights. That this piece has been locked away in the world of organ music rather than more widely known is a shame that borders on the criminal. I very much hope that this present recording makes it better known.

The third of the bigger pieces takes us right back to 1967 and, whilst it is most definitely a product of its era, I am happy to report that Bolcom’s Black Host has aged very well indeed, unlike the phrase used in the score that gives the CD its title. If the MacMillan and the Swayne build up to stunning climaxes, the equivalent moment of Black Host can only be described as a cataclysm. More black hole than Black Host! The title refers to the black mass but, described by the composer in a talk many years later, it seems to be more about an iconoclastic desire to take organ music out of a religious context than an enthusiasm for satanism. It is written for organ, percussion and electronic tape and both of the latter elements are tastefully handled for maximum impact. It is an enthralling listen.

The rest of the pieces included are shorter and more reflective, though their choice is highly judicious in complementing the longer works. I particularly enjoyed Stephen Paulus’ gorgeously meditative A Refined Reflection. Amidst all the wildness and throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, Peter Maxwell Davies’ austere Veni Creator Spiritus seems like a stern teacher coming to the music room to tell the boys to keep the noise down! It is, of course, an elegantly turned composition which strikes an appropriate note of seriousness before Black Host lets rip. By contrast, John Furse’s Moot Points echoes the strand of playfulness – even naughtiness – that runs through the larger pieces but on a smaller scale. The overall effect is one of immense variety, which is another way in which this recording confounds expectations. These shorter pieces play an important role in making this recording as whole a success, adding depth and variety to the more immediately ear-grabbing moments.

As I hope I have communicated, this is decidedly not a CD just for organ enthusiasts. It contains important music that anyone and everyone should hear. More than all that it is a tour de force of glittering organ playing that, to use parlance more suited to 1967, really does blow the mind!

David McDade

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