Dan Morgan
MusicWeb International
June 2015

He’s back! Christopher Herrick, globetrotter and mainstay of Hyperion’s multi-volume Organ Fireworks series, returns with a wide selection of showpieces, old and new. I bet he wears really pointy shoes, for he manages to winkle out the most unusual repertoire, all of which he despatches with flair and a sense of fun. Here he plays the newly installed Metzler organ at the Royal Abbey of Santa Maria de Poblet, Tarragona. The instrument has been specifically designed to cater for a broad range of music, from the French baroque through to the present day.

It’s fitting, then, that this recital opens with Power of Life, by the contemporary Swedish organist-composer Mons Leidvik Takle. Dedicated to Herrick it’s shot through with lovely tunes; it’s also quick on its toes—no mean feat with an instrument of this heft—and it builds to a glorious, cliff-hanging finale that had me reaching for the Repeat button. The warmth and character of this new Metzler is so seductive, and the recording—produced and engineered by Paul Niederberger—is well up to the standards of the house.

Next up is Amazing Grace, a set of variations on American hymn tunes by the blind pianist and jazz musician George Shearing. Miraculously, Herrick combines church-like gravitas with a singing, almost rhapsodic line that’s strangely affecting. After that another piece with its roots in a spiritual setting; Sir William Walton’s Orb and Sceptre, written for the Queen’s coronation in 1953, was first heard in London’s Westminster Abbey. Having already penned Crown Imperial for George V in 1937, Walton certainly knew how these grand occasions should go. From its opening fanfares through to its central march and crowning jubilations, this arrangement captures all the pomp and pageantry that makes the orchestral version so thrilling.

Listening to Orb and Sceptre several times in quick succession I was struck by how this organist manages to be such a virtuoso and yet wear his talents so lightly. In other hands this ceremonial showpiece could so easily be overpowering, but Herrick’s judicious registrations and masterly control of dynamics ensures that doesn’t happen. The gentle pulsations of the Aria (Cantilena) from Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas brasileiras No 5 are a perfect antidote to all those celebrations; once again Herrick brings out the feel and flavour of the original. The organ’s lower registers are especially well served here.

Toccata No 2, by the Dutch organist and composer Marius Monnikendam, is typical of the breed. Herrick negotiates its flits and flourishes with aplomb; in the process he unlocks the mighty Metzler’s wide range of colours. This organ really is a multi-talented beast, combining as it does the power of a nineteenth-century Cavaillé-Coll with the good manners of, say, a modern Goll. Indeed, the point and clarity I associate with the latter comes through in David Nield’s wonderfully buoyant arrangement of Mozart’s Andante and variations in G major. Herrick’s lightness of touch—in every sense of the phrase—makes for the loveliest of interludes.

There’s a fascinating note in the booklet about these Swiss organ builders. The fourth-generation Metzlers certainly take great pride in their workmanship. For instance oak is carefully selected, sent to the firm’s sawmill and then stored outside for five to fifteen years before being used for organ cases, sound-boards and bellows. I like to think this instrument’s burnished, well-integrated sound—especially noticeable in the airy Mozart arrangement—derives, in part at least, from such extraordinary dedication to the organ-maker’s craft. The abbey’s warm, spacious acoustic does the rest.

The German composer Hans-André Stamm, who was just sixteen when he played the organ at Notre-Dame de Paris, wrote the Rapsodia alla Latina for a concert he gave in Mexico in 2009. Remarkably, it’s deft and dense all at once, and the Metzler’s great swirls of sound—what pedals—will impress your friends and startle your neighbours. More impressive than the sheer volume produced by this behemoth is the fact that it's being played by a man in his seventies; happily, Herrick has lost none of his dash and dexterity.

Such epithets also apply to the French composer, organist and improviser extraordinaire Marcel Dupré. Movements 6 to 9 from his Vêpres de commun des fêtes de la Sainte-Vierge, based on plainsong antiphons for Christmas, are played here with a mix of grace and grandeur that’s utterly right for this rep. One can just imagine this music rolling around Saint-Sulpice or Notre Dame, infiltrating every last nook and cranny of those votive spaces. The Poblet acoustic allows for a fair degree of reverberation, but it never seems to muddy the music.

The third of Saint-Saëns’s Trois Rhapsodies sur des cantiques Bretons, for organ, harmonium or piano four hands, is a now jewelled, now diaphanous piece. At times Herrick makes it sounds like it’s being played on a harmonium, morphing into a full-scale organ sound at others. As so often with this composer it’s the inner voices that tell the most eloquent tales. Who better than Herrick to let them speak? In chiesa, I know, but a resounding bravo seems appropriate at this point.

Rather different is the Italian composer, organist and pedagogue Vincenzo Petrali’s Allegro festoso, from his Messa solenne in F major. It's a dancerly delight that may seem a tad heavy of limb, but Herrick gives it plenty of lift. The penultimate piece, an arrangement of the fifth movement of Peter Warlock’s Capriol suite, may be a wisp of a thing but it sticks in one’s mind with the obstinacy of a burr. By contrast Berliner Franz Wagner’s Trionfo della vita 'Phantasiestück' is one of those big, rather bluff creations that speaks loudly but says very little. Nevertheless, Herrick plays it with the same care and attention he lavishes on the other—much better—pieces in this recital.

What a power of good this recording has done me on a dank, rather dispiriting weekend. There’s so much light and warmth here—helped in no small measure by stand-out sonics—that even those who don’t normally gravitate to the organ will surely find something to savour. Herrick’s liner-notes effervesce with enthusiasm, and it’s that youthful vigour and sense of bright enquiry that underpins so much of his music-making. Long may it continue.

Fine playing, a noble instrument and a superb recording; fans of Mr Herrick will love this one.