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In London Town
Benjamin Sheen (organ)
rec. 2020, St Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York CRD RECORDS 3541 
This Transatlantic Extravaganza gets off to an exuberant start. Listeners will know William Walton’s iconic marches Crown Imperial and Orb and Sceptre, although maybe not March for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. It was commissioned by the ABC Television network as the opening and closing credit music for their proposed series based on Winston Churchill’s then recently published four-volume history, a project that sadly never came to fruition. Tom Winpenny made this arrangement for organ, and Benjamin Sheen makes full use of the massive resources (mixtures, reeds and chamade trumpet) of the St Thomas Church organ in an enthusiastic and commanding performance.
The Minuet from the Downland Suite was John Ireland’s “one hit wonder” on Classic FM. Originally for brass band, the movement is typically heard in its string orchestra incarnation. The other movements belong to the aficionado. The composer and organist Alec Rowley arranged Elegy, the deeply felt second movement. In this reflective piece, Ireland out-Elgars Elgar in developing a deep sense of loss and of what might have been.
Speaking of Elgar, we get here a magnificent massive arrangement for organ of the Cockaigne Overture. All the magic of the original is present and correct: the Salvation Army brass band, the church bells, the strolling of lovers in the park, and the cheeky urchin. The Londoner’s theme, the heart of the overture, is heard Nobilmente. The present organist’s father, Graham Sheen, made this scintillating transcription. It functions perfectly, and should be deemed a major recital piece.
Legend has it that St Bride travelled back in time to be present at the Nativity of Our Lord. She was attended by two angels. Judith Bingham has taken this thought and developed it into a meditation. In the score, she has inscribed lines from a poem that she has penned, illuminating the story. The lines act in lieu of expression marks, presumably allowing the organist a degree of flexibility in interpretation. The result is dreamy music that feels almost impressionistic in mood. Appropriately, St Bride assisted by angels has a sense of timelessness that reflects the saint’s legend.
Two numbers by Percy Whitlock are included. The first, Fantasie ChoralNo.1, a well-constructed work, explores several themes that develop into a set of three variations. There is much magic in this secular organ piece, especially the quicksilver scherzetto variation. The hushed closing is pure witchery. It is likely that the Belgian composer CÚsar Franck’s Three Chorals were models. The second work is the popular Scherzetto from Whitlock’s massive Sonata. David Gammie’s liner notes for the Hyperion disc CDA67470 suggested that this movement reflected the popular dance tunes appealing to Whitlock. Once again, the effect of this thistledown music is “brilliant, witty, yet understated” – a brilliant performance.
It is appropriate that Benjamin Sheen chose to include the late Simon Preston’s tour de force Alleluyas. Messiaen is clearly a major influence here, most especially with Les anges from his La nativitÚ du Seigneur. There are two themes: one bold, spiky and rhythmic, the other more reticent but nodding towards rich jazz chords. These two themes are juxtaposed in a variety of ways throughout near six minutes. This calls for skilled changes of registration. Alleluyas aim is to recall the angels ascending to the throne of God. The score is prefaced by an appropriate quotation from the Liturgy of St James.
Master Tallis’s Testament is not among Herbert Howells’s favourite works of mine: I find it a bit stodgy. This number is the second of Six Pieces published in 1953 but written some years earlier. The slow exposition of the theme as a set of variations allows the organist to explore the contrast between the Tudor composer’s singing style and Howell’s “characteristic harmonic idiom”. Benjamin Sheen includes the short Tallis original organ Hymn: Veni Redemptor, and writes that although “Howells’s work does not quote a specific tune by the elder composer, the theme of the hymn is of similar melodic shape…” As such, it makes a satisfying introduction to Master Tallis’s Testament.
Andrew Carter’s short Lacrimae (Tears) was a response to the sudden death in 2015 of organist John Scott. It was first heard during the Solemn Requiem mass in his memory. Carter explained that it was “both a funeral march and a desperate cry of anguish”. It is certainly deeply felt and imbued with sadness. It is appropriate that it appears on this disc to temper some of the more energetic music. It is good that Lacrimae has survived as an important organ work, and was not simply an ephemeral response to a sad event.
Elgar wrote Imperial March to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Strangely, it has probably had more success in George Martin’s organ arrangement than in the original orchestral version. This effective march balances a grandiose tune with a softer, more reticent middle section. The liner notes suggest that in the coda “the imperialistic bombast is at last revealed”. That is the proper explanation these politically correct days, but perhaps it can be explained as sheer optimism and confidence, which is no terrible thing.
Benjamin Sheen is currently Sub-Organist at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, and Organ Tutor at the University of Oxford. He regularly performs on both sides of the Atlantic, in South Africa, Singapore and Europe.
The booklet is typically helpful, with useful notes about each work devised by the organist. These are preceded by a personal introduction to the album. There are biographical notes about the soloist and a paragraph about the musical tradition at St Thomas Church. Finally, the all- important specification and history of the Dobson organ is included. On the downside, no dates are given for the composers and arrangers, as well as for several of the pieces. This essential information should never be omitted.
I enjoyed this programme. The repertoire is impressive, Benjamin Sheen’s playing is outstanding, and the recording captures the colours of the organ. This is a fantastic exploration of some popular pieces in arrangement and some less well-known original works.
John France Contents William Walton (1902-1983) March for A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (1959) arr. for organ by Tom Winpenny John Ireland (1879-1962) A Downland Suite: II Elegy Lento espressivo (1932) arr. in 1950 for organ by Alec Rowley (1892-1958) Edward Elgar (1857-1934) Cockaigne Overture (In London Town) Op. 40 (1900-1901) arr. Graham Sheen (b. 1952) Judith Bingham (b. 1952) St Bride assisted by angels (2000) Percy Whitlock (1903-1946) Fantasie Choral No. 1 in D flat major (1936) Simon Preston (1938-2022) Alleluyas (1965) Thomas Tallis (c.1505-1585) Hymn: Veni Redemptor Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Six Pieces for organ: III Master Tallis’ Testament (publ. 1953) Percy Whitlock
Organ Sonata in C minor: Scherzetto (1936) Andrew Carter (b. 1939) Lacrimae (written in memory of John Scott, 2015) (publ. 2020) Edward Elgar Imperial March (1897) arr. for organ by George Martin (1844-1916)