'This performance [Reubke] surpasses any version yet to appear on CD. I can't think of any other organ record which I've found so unfailingly magnificent' (Gramophone)
In Memoriam – Titanic [9'05]
Fugue: Allegro [6'49]
The Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík is an extraordinary building. And inside it there is an extraordinary organ. Playing that organ here is Christopher Herrick and this seventh volume of 'Organ Fireworks' presents the customary collection of splendour and devastating sound.
At the centre of the disc, and in a set of pieces to do with maritime misfortune (and particularly the sinking of the Titanic in 1912), is the Reubke Sonata, one of the masterworks of the concert organists' repertoire.
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Taken from a collection of wedding music, David Johnson’s Trumpet Tune in F makes a suitably festive opening to Christopher Herrick’s first group of seasonal pieces. With the tempo marking ‘jaunty’, the piece is written in an uncomplicated ternary form, with a middle section in A minor during which the trumpet is silent. Born in Texas, Johnson was for many years Professor of Music at Arizona State University in Tempe and Organist of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Phoenix. His extensive work list includes much organ and choral music.
Like Widor and Lefébure-Wély, Alexandre Guilmant was part of an organist dynasty, comprising both builders and players, and succeeded his father at St-Nicolas in Boulogne-sur-Mer at the age of twenty. He was first heard in Paris at the inauguration of the Cavaillé-Coll organ at St-Sulpice in 1862 and immediately caught the attention of the public. His extensive touring brought him worldwide fame as both performer and composer, whilst at home he was one of the most influential teachers of his time.
During the eighteenth century a tradition grew up of improvising on popular carols during Mass at Christmas, apparently leading many players to inappropriate excess during the Offertoire. In his Deuxième Offertoire sur des Noëls, Guilmant muses on four carols, without ever overstepping the boundaries of taste. A straightforward chordal setting of ‘Voici le jour solennel’ for full organ opens the work and a diminuendo leads to an extended pastorale section with a lilting melody for the hautbois. A restrained climax leads to a reprise of this tune, now combined with ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ in the left hand. Over a pedal point a brief prelude ushers in the jaunty ‘Joseph est bien marié’ which is developed both imitatively and sequentially before a jubilant rendition of ‘A minuit fut fait réveil’, using the full compass of the organ. A short coda based on ‘Puer nobis nascitur’ brings the work to a joyous close.
Gaston Litaize’s teachers at the Paris Conservatoire included Marcel Dupré for the organ and Henri Büsser for composition. In 1936 he won the Rossini Prize with his cantata Fra Angelico, and he took second prize in the Prix de Rome in 1938. His compositions, relatively few in number, display an admirable technique, coupling imaginative rhythmic invention with a refined harmonic palette. Taken from the Twelve Pieces of 1939, the Variations sur un Noël angevin use a tune from the Anjou region. There are six variations in all, mostly linked together and displaying a wide range of techniques. The second, in the minor mode, is a dance in compound time, while the third and fifth are trios. The harmony of the fourth is full of exotic chromatic colouring and the sixth, entitled ‘Variation Finale’, is an extended fantasia on motifs from the tune, ending in a blaze of B major.
Thomas Hardy’s poem The Convergence of the Twain, reproduced below, was written, like the pieces by Bonnet and Karg-Elert, as a direct response to the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in 1912. The tragedy continues to exercise its hold on people’s imaginations, most recently in Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Every man for himself, whilst questions of the pressures of commercialism on passenger safety are as relevant today as they were in the early part of the century. Whatever the truth of the story of the ship’s band playing ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ as they sank, it inspired from Bonnet and Karg-Elert two very different but equally affecting works.
The Convergence of the Twain
Steel chambers, late the pyres
Over the mirrors meant
Jewels in joy designed
Dim moon-eyed fishes near
Well: while was fashioning
Prepared a sinister mate
And as the smart ship grew
Alien they seemed to be:
Or sign that they were bent
Till the Spinner of the Years
Thomas Hardy (24 April 1912)
Joseph Bonnet, a pupil of Guilmant and contemporary of Dupré, became organist of St-Eustache in 1906 and toured regularly in Britain and the United States before settling in New York in 1940. His compositions are mostly for concert rather than liturgical use and include two sets of twelve pieces. The first of the Op 10 set dating from 1913, In Memoriam – Titanic, is dedicated to ‘the memory of the titanic’s heroes’. The atmospheric opening, clearly paying homage to the watery prelude of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, ushers in John Bower Dykes’ tune Horbury. This is then subjected to constant development, the broodingly chromatic harmony heightening the tension. A climax is reached, the first line of the tune is heard clearly thundering out in octaves in the pedals, and then more insistently a third higher. The music subsides and although a section of recitative tries to raise the temperature again, it is overcome by a sense of hopelessness. Bonnet makes the most of the colouristic opportunities offered by the organ with a dark, lowering presentation of the tune, at the bottom of the instrument’s compass and then, over a dominant ninth chord, on the vox humana, with eerily spectral reminiscences suggesting lost souls in the icy ocean before the music sinks to its rest in E flat minor.
Sigfrid Karg-Elert, who lived most of his life in Leipzig, was largely self-taught. As well as being a virtuoso pianist he was a skilled performer on several orchestral instruments and, although he came to the organ relatively late in his career, he soon became one of its most noted exponents and exploited its expressive possibilities with immense thoroughness. In addition to the present Improvisation: ‘Nearer my God to Thee’ he also wrote a Canzona on the same theme for choir, solo voices, flute and orchestra. Where Bonnet, the Frenchman, used an English tune, the German Karg-Elert turned to the American hymnodist Lowell Mason for his inspiration. His presentation is also perhaps more cinematic, dealing with events in a much more graphic way. After a fairly straightforward presentation of the tune, the harmony becomes increasingly chromatic as we stray further and further from the home key. A quiet close in F major brings temporary respite before the final build-up to disaster. Proceeding in waves the music gathers speed and becomes increasingly dissonant and desperate. Dramatic pauses, rushing scales and crashing dissonances herald the catastrophe. Karg-Elert briefly quotes the chorale ‘Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir’ (‘From deep distress I cry to you’) before a final, majestically defiant statement of Mason’s tune. Christopher Herrick then plays the shorter, less purple, version of the coda, in which the music moves serenely towards the stars.
Julius Reubke’s Sonata on the 94th Psalm is one the cornerstones of the concert organist’s repertoire and a work of extraordinary maturity and accomplishment for a young man of twenty-three. Along with his equally astonishing Piano Sonata in B flat minor, this work shows a technique of remarkable assurance springing to life fully formed. Born in 1834, the son of a noted organ builder, he studied at the Berlin Conservatory where he came under the influence of Hans von Bülow. After a brief spell of teaching he went to Weimar in 1856 and became one of Liszt’s favourite pupils. Here he produced the two sonatas in a burst of white-hot creativity and also, interestingly, contemplated writing an opera. Reubke gave the first performance of the Sonata in Merseburg Cathedral in June 1857 before his failing health forced him to move to Pillnitz near Dresden, where he died one year later.
Clearly modelled on Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam’, Reubke’s score is prefaced by some verses from Psalm 94 (printed below). These are not meant to be taken as a literal programme, but rather to provide the emotional colouring of each of the three major sections. Beginning in no discernible key, a theme is given out in the pedals which is full of possibilities for dramatic development and immediately repeated a semitone lower. Rhythmic aspects of this theme are then explored as the music gropes towards, but never conclusively establishes, C minor as the home key. The Larghetto introduces a new theme and signals a gradual increase of pace and harmonic tension out of which the Allegro con fuoco erupts with what could be considered a sonata-form first subject derived from the dotted figure of the initial theme. The same idea, played at half speed and surrounded by swirling arpeggios, provides a second subject which is developed in alternation with the first until the music reaches a powerful climax. The gravely expressive Adagio flows seamlessly from what has gone before and adds another, more consoling, theme to the earlier material. In a final transformation the initial theme becomes the subject of the freely constructed Fugue which follows its course through to the terrifying and vengeful climax.
Grave, Larghetto: O Lord God, to whom vengeance belongeth, shew thyself. Lift up thyself, thou judge of the earth: render a reward to the proud.
Allegro con fuoco: Lord, how long shall the wicked triumph? They slay the widow and the stranger, and murder the fatherless. Yet they say: The Lord shall not see, neither shall the God of Jacob regard it.
Adagio: Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence. In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy comforts delight my soul.
Allegro: But the Lord is my defence; and my God is the rock of my refuge. And he shall bring upon them their own iniquity, and shall cut them off in their own wickedness.
Lefébure-Wély played for his first Mass at the age of eight and succeeded his father as organist at St-Roch in Paris in 1832. He was a good friend of Aristide Cavaillé-Coll and presided at two of his finest instruments – La Madeleine from 1847 to 1858 and St-Sulpice from 1863 until his death from consumption on New Year’s Eve 1869. His playing, which was noted for the effects he was able to conjure from the instrument, reflected the taste of the time. One German visitor in 1853 said, ‘He worked up a tremendously gay mood during the Mass on Sunday. In response to my astonishment over this I was told that the clergy as well as the congregation expect light-hearted music’. His Offertoire pour le temps de Noël is very much in this vein. There are seven variations with the penultimate being, traditionally, in the minor.
Christopher Herrick’s programme finishes with two settings of Martin Luther’s Christmas chorale. Johann Pachelbel’s lilting 12/8 Prelude on ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ sets the tune in the pedals against two manual parts, which treat each line of the chorale in dialogue. High-sounding stops emphasize the dancing quality of the piece, while the angels’ tidings to the shepherds are greeted on the last note by the nightingale, a suitably festive jeu d’esprit.
If Pachelbel’s setting suggests an exquisite medieval illumination, the splashy exuberance of the Toccata ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ by the American organist-composer Garth Edmundson, a pupil of Bonnet, is more like a vast and ostentatious stained-glass window. The continuous figuration of the first three verses becomes, in the last, punctuation for the lines of the chorale, in the manner of Bach’s In dulci jubilo.
Stephen Westrop © 1997
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