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The pieces featured on this recording comprise twentieth-century works from Britain, France and Scandinavia, which show immense variety in terms of their musical language, structure and use of the organ. There are common threads linking a number of the works: the use or creation of hymn tunes, folk melodies or chorales, and the inspiration taken from their texts or country of origin. Another theme is the concept of earthly struggle, giving praise to God, and the striving for ultimate redemption in heaven.

I am immensely grateful to Durham Cathedral Choir Association and Priory Records for their instigation and production of this recording-project. I am equally indebted to my colleagues and former teachers, Francis Pott, and to my family, for their support, guidance, and help in preparing both music and programme notes.

York Bowen was a highly-successful and well-respected musician during his lifetime, producing a vast catalogue of compositions, most of which sadly remained unpublished or underperformed following his death. One explanation for this can be attributed to the fact that his compositional style remained firmly rooted in Romanticism, which had largely become unfashionable by the 1960s. Dubbed the ‘English Rachmaninov’, his compositions are laden with  luscious chromatic harmonies and rich textures, encompassing expansive sweeps of phrasing. A much-acclaimed concert pianist, most of his best-known works are for orchestra or piano, including four piano concerti, which he himself premiered as soloist, appearing at the BBC Proms under Sir Henry J. Wood. Pianistic textures are much in evidence in his majestic Fantasia for organ, dedicated to the eminent organist Arnold Richardson. Framed by a march-like theme, the work is immediately arresting and impassioned, yet there are also moments of great delicacy and tenderness, allowing for full and colourful use of the organ’s resources.

Diptyque is one of Olivier Messiaen’s earliest organ works, composed in 1930 during his final year of studies with Marcel Dupré and Paul Dukas (to whom the works is dedicated). The work’s subtitle (essay on earthly life and blessed eternity) is portrayed through two vastly-contrasting sections, in which not only do we witness the early development of Messiaen as a composer, but also the heartfelt expression of his own profound Christian faith. The first part of the work is largely influenced by the style of Dupré; highly-chromatic yet diatonic, and densely-textured with a great sense of rhythmic drive and crispness of articulation. The resulting complexity of the music signifies the unrelenting pace and futility of the struggle of our earthly existence. The music reaches a height of anguish in a dense passage set in canon, after which the tension rapidly dissipates, making way for the work’s exceedingly calm second section. Here we see the early manifestation of Messiaen’s innovations in the treatment of harmony, rhythm and tempo, which were to characterize his unique style. The timelessness of eternity is portrayed by an extraordinarily slow, almost static, harmonic rhythm, whilst an exquisite, transcendental melody slowly climbs to the very top of the organ’s compass, representing tha ascent of man towards God. Ten years after composing the Diptyque, Messiaen transcribed its latter section for violin and piano under the title Louange à l’immortalité de Jésus, which became the final movement of the poignant Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the end of time), written and first performed during his imprisonment in a German prisoner-of-war camp.

Oskar Lindberg was a prominent Swedish composer, organist and teacher. An avid collector of folk melodies, he was also editor of the Church of Sweden’s Hymnbook, to which he contributed a number of new hymn tunes. His music largely encompasses a Romantic idiom, with overtones of Rachmaninov and Sibelius, as well as the French Impressionists. Above all, however , his music is essentially Nationalistic, drawing on the folk melodies of his beloved Sweden, and the beautiful landscapes of Dalarna and Lakeland, where he grew up, and where he often composed during summer months. Dedicated to his compatriot, the organist Albert Lindström, who died in 1935, the four-movement Sonata in G minor begins with a grand Funeral March, which hints at the echoes of a passing marching band. A delicate, almost wraithlike Adagio, and an equally mysterious Sarabande follow. The gloom is lifted in a joyous Finale whose main theme is imbued with infectious dotted rhythms. The second thematic subject is more hymn-like: subdued at its first appearance, it returns in a triumphant and symphonic rendition which brings the Sonata to a resplendent conclusion.

Marcel Dupré enjoyed a varied and glittering career as a teacher (for thirty years as Professor of Organ and later Director at the Paris Conservatoire), a virtuoso organist (giving recitals worldwide and succeeding Charles-Marie  Widor as organist at the Parisian church of Saint-Sulpice), and as a highly-regarded composer. In 1914 he was awarded the prestigious Premier Grand Prix de Rome; however, the outbreak of war meant he was unable to take up the prize of a period of residence at the French Institute in Rome, the Villa Medici. Among the compositions dating from that time are the Three Preludes and Fugues, which include the melancholic Prelude and Fugue in F minor, dedicated to the memory of Augustin Barié; a former organist at Saint-Germain des Prés, who died young in 1915. The Prelude sets a pensive melody against a persistent pendulum, reminiscent of the gentle pitter-patter of raindrops. The introspective Fugue (never extending beyond 8-foot timbres) is derived from the same upwards, yearning melody; the enduring presence of which can be heard as a continual striving for release. Whereas most fugues gather momentum towards their ultimate goal, Dupré chooses a more elusive path. Despite fleeting rays of sunshine, the piece has a rather tragic ending, falling away as if emotionally spent.

William Mathias was the foremost Welsh composer of the twentieth century. A pupil of Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music where he later became a Fellow, he was Head of Music at the University of Wales, Bangor, and founder of the North Wales International Music Festival. He composed his Variations on a Hymn Tune (based on the traditional Welsh tune Braint) in 1962, as a commission for BBC Wales; receiving its first performance in Llandaff Cathedral by Robert Joyce. One of his most substantial organ works, it begins with a regal introduction, before the theme is presented modestly by two flutes in canon. Six extremely-varied and characterful variations follow, exploring the modality and lyrical beauty of the tune, alongside the resoluteness and rhythmic vivacity of Mathias’s own distinctive musical language. A kaleidoscopic array of timbres is showcased, from the quietest string stops to the loudest of tubas, through a series of dances, marches, elegies and fanfares.

Composed in April 1934, Jehan Alain’s Choral Cistercien belongs to the plethora of ingenious and highly-original works produced during his short compositional career, ending in his tragic death in combat at the age of just 29. This serene and ethereal miniature was designed for the offering up of the host at Mass. The dovetailing of the two hands and lack of pedal sonority leads to a feeling of awe and mystery; one can almost visualize the cloud of incense as the delicate sonorities gently drift around. Only discovered posthumously, the Choral was written during one of his stays at the twelfth-century Cistercian Abbey at Valloires, in the Somme, a place where he sought peace and refuge from the busyness of daily life.

The sparkling Toccata on ‘Nu la oss takke Gud’ (‘Now thank we all our God’) is perhaps Egil Hovland’s best-known organ work. An extremely-popular and prolific composer of instrumental, choral and orchestral works, Hovland was organist and choir-master in Fredrikstad, Norway, from 1949 until his death in 2013, becoming a Knight of the Royal Order of Saint Olav in 1983 in recognition of his services to Norwegian music. His teachers included Aaron Copland and Luigi Dallapiccola; his own works displaying an assortment of compositional styles. Composed in 1973, the Toccata is saturated with exuberant bell-like cascades, with the chorale melody proclaimed successively in both the right hand and the pedals. A triumphant homophonic statement of the chorale allows for some colourful harmonic reworking, before a jubilant conclusion is reached in a blaze of rising cluster chords.

The contemporary English composer Francis Pott is recognised particularly for his sacred choral and organ works. His music has been performed and broadcast in over forty countries, widely published and released worldwide on CD. Winner of five national composition awards, in 1997 he received First Prize in the piano solo section of the S. S Prokofiev Composing Competition, Moscow. In 2006 and 2011 he was a nominated finalist in the BASCA/BBC Annual Composer Awards, London. His organ composition Empyrean was awarded both first and second prizes at the Lloyd’s Bank National Competition for new organ music associated with the English Church Music Festival of St. Michael’s, Cornhill, in May 1982. The composer writes:

‘The impulse to write this piece came from the experience of sitting beneath the famous Octagon in the crossing of Ely Cathedral during a performance of the Berlioz Requiem Mass. Architectural features of our great churches communicate as deliberate visual metaphors for things of the spirit; and so, on a summer evening, with shafts of light intersecting in its lantern, the Octagon provided a memorable image of Christian aspiration willing the soul upward, away from the earth and towards heaven. This is the idea behind the the resulting music.

In medieval times the word ‘Empyrean’ (from the Greek for fire, or the firmament) came to apply by extension to the supposed tunnel leading from this world up to the next, and it is in this sense that it offers an apposite title for the music. To reinforce its significance , two verses (first and last) from one of Isaac Watts’s greatest hymns are superscribed on the manuscript:-

“Give us the wings of faith, to rise

Within the veil, and see

The saints above, how great their joys,

How bright their glories be…

…Our glorious Leader claims our praise

For His own pattern given,

While the great cloud of witnesses

Show the same path to heaven.”

‘Empyrean’ is dominated throughout by a four-note pattern (first heard almost at once) whose kinship to Britten’s ‘Rejoice in the Lamb’ or Shostakovich’s musical monogram D-S-C-H is merely coincidental. Tonally the music rests principally upon the conflict between the triadic areas of A minor and F# major, especially in the latter stages. The intended impression is of music first heard coming from far above, gradually approached and finally encountered in full and blazing immediacy.’

Programme notes by Francesca Massey (tracks 1-10) and Francis Pott (track 11)

Bravura.mp3

Bravura!

PRCD 1137

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York Bowen (1884-1961)

Fantasia, Op. 136    

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992)

Diptyque (essai sur la vie terrestre et l’éternité bienheureuse)

Oskar Lindberg (1887-1955)

Sonata in G minor

Marcia elegiaca

Adagio

Alla Sarabanda

Finale: Allegro con brio

Marcel Dupré (1886-1971)

Prelude and Fugue in F minor, Op. 7 No. 2

William Mathias (1934-1992)

Variations on a Hymn Tune, Op. 20

Jehan Alain (1911-1940)

Choral Cistercien pour une élévation

Egil Howland (1924-2013)

Nu la oss takke Gud (Organ Toccata)

Francis Pott (b. 1957)

Empyrean

Please click on the links below to read some reviews on the recently released solo CD by Francesca Massey: