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Hyperion Records

CDA66121 - Organ Fireworks, Vol. 1

Recording details: January 1984
Westminster Abbey, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Mark Brown
Engineered by Antony Howell
Release date: April 1986
Total duration: 53 minutes 50 seconds


'If you want only one CD of a grand organ this has to be it' (Gramophone)

'A tour de force' (The Penguin Guide to Compact Discs)

'Technically sizzling' (Hi-Fi News)

Organ Fireworks, Vol. 1
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
This is the ‘Fireworks’ programme that was to light the fuse for Herrick and Hyperion’s world pilgrimage to record stunning organ repertoire on a range of exciting instruments. When Ted Perry, the founder of the then-fledgling Hyperion label, was first offered a combination of Christopher Herrick, a programme entitled ‘Organ Fireworks’ and Westminster Abbey, it was Westminster Abbey that initially most attracted his attention. The recording was made during a single evening, in spite of a bell rehearsal unexpectedly striking up in the neighbouring St Margaret’s Church. Though Christopher had already recorded for a number of different record companies, including the Decca subsidiary L’Oiseau-Lyre, it was this Westminster Abbey disc for Hyperion that was to lead to the amazingly fruitful relationship that has produced to date twelve ‘Organ Fireworks’ discs, four ‘Organ Dreams’ discs, the complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach on sixteen discs, and Daquin and Sweelinck on period instruments.

Perhaps it is unnecessary to analyse what constitutes an ‘Organ Firework’; most people can work it out for themselves. Even if the mood and dynamic of any given piece has sombre or relatively gentle moments, the overriding spirit of a ‘firework’ is likely to be striking, bright and even optimistic. That is certainly true of this pioneering programme, the first of what was to become such a successful series.

All three French composers represented on this disc were the sons of organists and, in the case of Guilmant and Widor, the dynastic connection stretches back for several generations. Joseph Bonnet, one of Guilmant’s most important pupils, was born in Bordeaux in 1884 and held his first church appointment at the age of fourteen. In 1906, the year that he received his premier prix at the Conservatoire, as the result of a competition he was appointed organist of St-Eustache in Paris. Like his master, he made several highly successful tours of England and America and in 1940, as a refugee from the Second World War, he settled in New York. Bonnet created an organ department at the University of Rochester before moving to Canada and teaching at Montreal. He died in Quebec in 1944. Like Guilmant he took a keen interest in the promotion of early music: in print, with editions of Frescobaldi, Bach and several anthologies, and in concert, particularly a series he gave in 1917 at the Hotel Astoria Ball Room in New York entitled ‘The Story of Organ Music from the Early Composers to the Present Time’. He was also the first to record the music of de Grigny and Marchand. Variations de concert, his opus 1, dates from 1908 and is dedicated to the American organist Clarence Eddy. A dramatic introduction, a striking call to attention, launches the work in suitably virtuosic mode but the mood soon subsides for the graceful sixteen-bar theme. The harmonic style is conservative but enlivened by occasional touches of modal piquancy. There follow four variations in which the theme is always clearly audible: (i) theme on voix celeste with ‘pizzicato’ pedal part; (ii) theme in the pedals beneath triplet figuration on manuals; (iii) a motet-style prelude where the theme is in the left hand on a trumpet stop with imitative interludes between the lines of the melody; (iv) the longest variation where the theme is harmonized with massive chords above a pedal descant in octaves. As befits a disc of fireworks Christopher Herrick includes the composer’s optional pedal cadenza, a passage of prodigious difficulty, and the work ends with a brilliant toccata whose pedal tune is clearly derived from the opening of the main theme.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of Alexandre Guilmant in the history of the organ and organ playing in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in France. His sphere of influence as performer, teacher and editor was enormous. This influence also extended to the instruments themselves because although he never wavered in his devotion to the symphonic organ of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll he was also concerned to ensure that organs were suitably equipped to play the early music he was editing. He grew up in Boulogne-sur-Mer where, at the age of twelve, he was already deputizing for his father at the church of St-Nicolas. He had his own church, St-Joseph, when he was sixteen and in 1857 succeeded his father. A brief but intense period of study with Lemmens, in Brussels in 1860, laid the foundations both for his love of the music of Bach and also of his own teaching methods. He took part in the inaugurations of the organs at St-Sulpice and Notre-Dame in Paris and in 1871 was appointed organist at La Trinité, a post to which he devoted himself for the next thirty years. Although by no means the first player to gain an international reputation, his extended tours of the United States were unprecedented and led to the foundation of the Guilmant School of Organ Playing in 1899. His reputation as a composer now rests principally on his more demanding concert works but during his lifetime the fluency and grace of his many smaller works were equally admired. These include a substantial body of work based on plainsong, much of it modest in demand and suitable for use in the liturgy, which laid the foundations for the compositions of Dupré, Duruflé and Tournemire. Grand chœur triomphal in A major, Op 47 No 2, was written in 1876 and published in the collection entitled L’Organiste pratique. Largely intended as teaching material, this collection of over fifty pieces originally appeared in a two-stave edition, which Guilmant later revised with an independent pedal part. The exuberant march is ushered in by a fanfare figure in octaves which reappears at important structural moments and the piece displays a remarkable consistency of thematic construction. Each appearance of the main theme is strengthened by some new counterpoint or harmonic intensification. There is a less martial central trio section. The March on a theme of Handel, Op 15 No 2, dates from 1861 and appeared in the collection Pièces dans différents styles, published between 1860 and 1907. It is one of his most popular works and Guilmant played it during his solo recital at the celebrations for the opening of the organ at St-Sulpice in April 1862. A slow march-like section, based on the opening bar of the chorus ‘Lift up your heads’ from Handel’s Messiah is followed by a lively fugue in Bachian manner, reminiscent of the fugal sections of the Prelude in E flat major, which was reputedly one of Guilmant’s favourite Bach works and the one which opened his mammoth series of forty recitals at the St Louis World Fair in 1904. After a climax the opening theme is combined with the fugue subject, before a grandiose restatement of the opening march played on full organ.

The next two pieces—of romantic English organ music—are ideally suited to the instrument in Westminster Abbey, a fine example of the late-nineteenth-century tradition of building in this country. Percy Whitlock, whose brief life was blighted by ill health, studied at the Royal College of Music in London under Stanford, Vaughan Williams and William Harris. His Four Extemporisations were written in 1932, the year in which he was appointed Organist to the Municipal Borough of Bournemouth. He had been Director of Music at St Stephen’s Church, Bournemouth, since 1930, but in 1935 he resigned the post in order to devote himself to his borough duties. He became a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and performed regularly with the Bournemouth Municipal Orchestra. Whitlock also wrote music criticism for the Bournemouth Echo, under the pseudonym Kenneth Lark. ‘Fanfare’, the fourth of the Extemporisations, makes an exhilarating effect by its combination of rhythmic verve and scrunchy Delian harmony. A deliciously dreamy interlude leads, by way of a transitional passage, back to a truncated repeat of the opening music.

Alfred Herbert Brewer was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral and, like Whitlock, studied at the Royal College of Music. Walter Parratt, Frederick Bridge and the seemingly ubiquitous Stanford were his professors. He held posts at, amongst others, Bristol Cathedral and Tonbridge School before returning to Gloucester as Organist in 1897. In his capacity as Conductor of the Three Choirs Festival he built up a reputation as an adventurous programme planner, commissioning, for example, Herbert Howells’ first orchestral work, Sine nomine. Elgar was a close friend and clearly held him in great respect; when, in 1901, it seemed that Brewer would have to drop his own cantata Emmaus from the Festival programme because he did not have the time to orchestrate it, Elgar offered to do the job for him. Brewer’s Marche héroïque proceeds with a swagger that is thoroughly Elgarian, using a bold harmonic palette and sporting a strikingly good tune for the two trio sections. Christopher Herrick played this march at the funeral service for Earl Mountbatten of Burma at Westminster Abbey in September 1979. That performance prompted the publishers to reprint it, leading to its subsequent popularity.

Marius Monnikendam was born in Haarlem, in The Netherlands. He studied in Amsterdam and then with Vincent d’Indy, at the Schola Cantorum in Paris. In 1930 he was appointed Professor of Harmony and Analysis at the Conservatoires of Amsterdam and Rotterdam. As well as being a respected teacher he also worked extensively as a critic and wrote studies on Stravinsky and César Franck. Amongst his compositions are five toccatas for organ, one of them with brass. This is the first, dating from 1935, and is dedicated to his master Charles Tournemire. He in turn dedicated a volume of his Orgue mystique cycle to Monnikendam. After an arresting unison opening, Toccata filters Baroque figuration through a French-influenced harmonic vocabulary.

Trumpet tunes are frequently found in theatre and church music of the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries. They were used for ceremonial occasions, royal pomp or scenes of battle and many fine examples exist by Purcell. Perhaps one of the most widely known is the prelude to the Te Deum of Charpentier, which gained wide currency as the signature tune for the Eurovision organization. The Texan-born organist David Johnson, who was Professor of Music at Arizona State University for many years, produced no fewer than nine affectionate tributes to the genre, the present one, in D major, dating from 1962. For the solo lines he generally restricts himself to the diatonic notes which would be available on the natural trumpet while allowing a little more spice in the accompaniment. The piece is in ABA form, with each trumpet phrase of the opening section being repeated orchestrally, as it were. A contrasting middle section in the minor leads back to a reprise of the whole first section. This very recording has been used as a signature tune of the radio programme, popular all over the USA, called ‘With heart and voice’, hosted by Richard Gladwell.

The life and career of Charles-Marie Widor, which began in his home town of Lyon, parallels closely that of his near contemporary, Guilmant, in many respects. They were both from a long line of organists and organ builders, both studied under Lemmens, both had successful provincial careers before they received the call to Paris, and both had long-term appointments at major Parisian churches. Widor presided at St-Sulpice for sixty-four years; famously the church authorities forgot to confirm his appointment after the initial one-year trial period, making it probably the longest probationary period in history. He made his Paris debut one year after Guilmant, also at St-Sulpice, and also took part in the dedication of the organ at Notre-Dame. Whereas Guilmant’s compositional effort was almost entirely directed towards the organ and the church, Widor cherished much wider aspirations and had successes in the fields of chamber music and the theatre. Aside from a few smaller pieces the bulk of his organ writing is concentrated in the ten symphonies, the equivalent of Guilmant’s eight sonatas. Symphony No 7 was published in 1887, the third of the set of four (Nos 5 to 8) which form his Op 42. The vigorous triple-time Finale is the last of six movements, and is effectively an extended and continuous develop­ment section, based on the striding theme heard in the pedals underneath sustained open fifths. After this striking opening the theme is played legato in the top part accompanied by staccato chords, a favourite textural device. The energy level is kept high, in a continuous whirl of velocity, as the music moves towards flatter keys. A return to the brightness of A minor is accompanied by a vortex of scalic figuration. The final peroration is preceded by a cadenza.

English concert organist Simon Preston was a chorister at King’s College, Cambridge, under Boris Ord and the Organ Scholar under David Willcocks. He was appointed sub-organist at Westminster Abbey in 1962, a post he held until 1967. He returned as Organist and Master of the Choristers in 1981, after eleven years at Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. His published output is small but contains some very effective short choral works and a handful of pieces for the organ. The earliest of these is Alleluyas, which appeared in an anthology of new organ compositions in 1965. Its extrovert style reflects something of his character as a performer and it is clearly influenced by the music of Messiaen. After the initial improvisatory gesture, Alleluyas is built from the juxtaposition of two contrasting ideas—the one fast and spikily rhythmic, the other a series of richly scored jazzy chords. The piece is headed by a quotation from the Liturgy of St James:

At his feet the six-winged Seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye,
Veil their faces to the presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluya, Alleluya, Alleluya, Lord most high.

Norwegian church-music composer Egil Hovland, born near Oslo in 1924, has produced a large body of works for the organ, encompassing a wide range of styles and compositional techniques. His output also includes church music and several multimedia sacred dramatic works. His teachers included Holmboe, Copland and Dallapiccola. The Toccata ‘Now thank we all our God’ presents the lines of the chorale in canon between the outer parts, while the brilliant manual figuration alternates three distinct musical ideas. The choppy alternating chords of the final page gradually become note clusters, bringing the piece, and this disc, to a whirlwind conclusion.

Stephen Westrop © 2004

Other albums in this series
'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 2' (CDA66258)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 3' (CDA66457)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 5' (CDA66676)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 8' (CDA66978)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 9' (CDA67228)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 10' (CDA67458)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 11' (CDA67577)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 12' (CDA67612)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 13' (CDA67734)
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'Organ Fireworks, Vol. 14' (CDA67758)
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