This compact disk offers a dozen well-known organ "classics": over 71 minutes of pieces written specifically for the instrument as well as transcriptions for it. Issued on EMI's Classics for Pleasure label as # 7243 5 72804 2 6, the disk features two organists, Noel Rawsthorne and Wayne Marshall, each playing 6 pieces on Coventry Cathedral's 1962 Harrison & Harrison organ. Not surprisingly, all the pieces are re-issues from earlier digital [DDD] recordings: the first six (Rawsthorne) from 1984 and the remaining six (Marshall) from 1990. The date of this compilation is 1995. Intended for wide distribution, this CD can now be had--used or new--at a modest price, and thus can be considered a bargain package of popular organ classics.
As elders may recall, the original 14th-century (Anglican) Cathedral Church of St. Michael at Coventry (along with its fine 1886 Willis organ) was destroyed by Nazi bombs in 1940. It was rebuilt in a modern style, re-opening in 1962 with a new Harrison & Harrison organ: a 4-manual instrument of 5 divisions--Pedal, Great, Choir, Swell (enclosed), and Solo (enclosed)--and 76 stops whose pipes are located to the left and right of the high altar in a somewhat unusual distribution. The tonal quality of the various stops is quite lovely, though the reeds, at as much as 12 inches air pressure, can become aggressive. The reverberation time of the long building seems to be around 2 1/2 seconds, which can present a problem to recording engineers.
Noel Rawsthorne (now in his early 80s) was about 55 when he arranged and recorded the pieces he performs here. Recently having ended 25 years of service as Organist of the Liverpool Cathedral, he was widely known as well for his several successful compositions, especially for organ.
Jeremiah Clarke's Prince of Denmark's March (originally for harpsichord) has long been known as a regal showpiece for solo trumpet and accompanying instrument(s). Here also it features solo trumpet or clarion stops along with larger clusters of accompanying timbres. The smaller and higher pitched trumpet-like passages come across very well, but things get a bit muddled during the more fully registered parts.
Schubert's Marche Militaire seems a bit large and self-important in its present guise. (Perhaps as one accustomed to playing the original piano piece, I am too critical.) Again the more heavily registered passages, especially with lower pitched reeds, lack clarity, and the piece overall seems a trifle heavy-footed.
Bach's well-known Air ("on the G String") is played softly with light, high-pitched tissues of sound (flutes, strings) along with very gentle, cushiony bass pulses. It sounds clear and lovely, with no registration difficulties.
Wagner's Walkürenritt [Ride of the Valkyries] from his opera Die Walküre is today probably best known as the music played from battle helicopters over Viet Nam in the movie Apocalypse Now. As such it may carry rather unpleasant warlike connotations. In the original opera based on Teutonic myth it featured the Valkyries [female warriors] Brünnhilde and her sisters as they carried the souls of fallen warriors up to Valhalla [home of the gods] while shrieking their war-whoops "Ho-yo-to-ho-o." Even in Wagner's day the scene's music acquired a life of its own, and to his dismay was much requested as a separate concert piece. At first strenuously resisting, he finally gave way and eventually ended up conducting it himself in concert form. In this organ presentation we get vigorous, robust music which realizes in a sense the confusion of battle. As pure music it is less persuasive: things get muddled up and somewhat out of kilter due to the blurring effect of resonance combined with problems of balance between the contending forces. Still, the essence of the music remains and may be satisfactory to many.
The traditional Londonderry Air [Danny Boy] is a gentle contrast to the preceding piece. Starting out softly with string sounds and a rather gentle bass, the music gradually builds to fuller and stronger textures with some of the now-expected loss of clarity and balance.
Händel's Hallelujah Chorus from his Messiah is perhaps a tiny bit sluggish, but sounds quite good at the beginning and, indeed, pretty much overall, ending with very emphatic final chords.
In sum, Rawsthorne's performances are competent enough, but either his arrangements, his registrations or his recording technicians fail him in setting forth fully satisfying presentations to the listener. In contrast, the following pieces, performed by Wayne Marshall, do a much better job of balancing forces and achieving clarity. Whether it is because they were--all but one--written originally for organ, or were better recorded (by EMI engineers), or were better registered by the performer, or perhaps because of some other factor, the final six pieces present much better sound images to the listener.
Wayne Marshall, now 51, was about 29 when he made the recordings here. Educated at Chetham School, Manchester, England and the Royal College of Music, he became known originally as a pianist and organist, but later took on conducting duties as well. He has some specialization in American works of the 20th century including those of Gershwin, Bernstein, and Duke Ellington. He premiered Macmillan's organ concerto "A Scotch Bestiary" with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2004. Here he performs 19th and 20th century French music, along with the ubiquitous Toccata and Fugue in D Minor of J.S. Bach.
I have come to wince when I see an organ music program featuring Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. No doubt many other organ music listeners share this experience. Still, to the broader public the piece is perhaps symbolic of organ music; hence, in recordings addressed to audiences at large the piece has become a sine qua non. We'll just have to deal with it. That said, this is a pretty good and fresh-sounding performance which comes across in a quite satisfactory way. Only the fastest passages get blurred somewhat by reverberation, which is tolerable.
Probably another sine qua non for English audiences is Vierne's Carrillon de Westminster, a piece built upon a tune played by the famous chimes of the clock tower at Westminster Palace, the home of the British Parliament. The stately chimes are a signature of the BBC and have come to symbolize the United Kingdom. Although the Westminster Chimes are in the key of E Major, Vierne has transposed them here to D Major, as well as taking other liberties in quoting them. The piece is hardly the most sober of organ classics, but it is engaging and enjoyable, not to mention very popular among organists and listeners.
Saint-SaŽns wrote his Bénédiction Nuptiale for the wedding of a couple of friends, and it is not among his best-known compositions for organ. Still, it is well-written in an appropriate style and mood, with a sweetness, simplicity, and purity which seem to evoke the sanctity of marriage. It is a very pleasant listen doubtless much requested by brides and grooms in France and elsewhere. (Saint-SaŽns' own marriage didn't last long; he walked out after 6 years and never came back. Many think he was gay.)
Much more widely known is the Danse Macabre [Dance of Death] by Saint-SaŽns, which embodies a late-medieval tradition reminding people of the universality of death as it touches the high and low alike. Associated with Halloween, the Dance of Death as portrayed here has Death tuning his violin to the tritone dissonance (A - Eb, "the devil in music") after the clock strikes midnight and then playing softly at first to call up the dead from their graves to dance, growing steadily louder and more animated till the medieval plainchant tune "Dies Irae" [Day of Wrath] from the funerary liturgy is quoted and a climax is reached, after which a brief pause occurs and an oboe indicates the cock's crowing at daybreak--a signal for the dead to scurry back to their graves. Originally written as a song for voice and piano, it was expanded to an orchestral tone poem by the composer, who used the xylophone to imitate the sound of the skeletons' bones as they danced. The famous and highly esteemed English organist Edwin Lemare made the organ transcription played here.
Charles-Marie Widor, French organist, composer, and teacher, was born to a family of organ-builders and true to his birth became a champion of the instrument, writing ten organ symphonies as well as numerous other works for organ. Though many of his compositions have been forgotten, his organ works remain very much in the repertoire, including the Symphony No. 1, whose Marche Pontificale [Bishop's March] is played here along with the Toccata from his Symphony No. 5. The March begins with pomp and ceremony suited to a high official of the church, but later moves on to less imposing musical passages and overall presents a quite charming musical experience. The following Toccata is much more widely known and is played more often by itself than with the other movements of the Fifth Organ Symphony. A brilliant showpiece, it has become a favorite for organists wishing to display their dexterity and for audiences who come to share in their glory. It is in danger of becoming--like the Bach Toccata and Fugue--an overexposed warhorse, but it also is an essential part of any collection of organ music.
Although listeners devoted to organ music may find little of interest here, newcomers will likely benefit from this generous introduction to the music of the "king of instruments" and the composers who wrote it. If purchased at a modest price it can be a genuine bargain for the latter group of listeners. In addition, the works performed by Marshall offer attractive presentations of French organ music which can be appreciated by everyone.