sound festival 2020 review: Revisiting new music for organ


On the AUBERTIN organ
The final work by John McLeod is played on the organ of King’s College Chapel Cambridge

Broadcast on Friday 23rd October at 10.30am

Today’s recital presented contemporary organ works by six very different composers all of them with connections to Aberdeen. Before each piece, the composers gave a short introduction to their works. This was very helpful since all of them were clear and to the point. The titles were also shown on screen which, especially in one case as you will see was helpful for my spelling.

The recital opened with Toccata Trilinea by John Hearne. He described the three lines of his music (hence the title Trilinea) as being like three lanes of traffic on a motorway, the pedal part suggesting perhaps a big lorry. I thought of the road between Aberdeen and Stonehaven where for many years John Hearne was the director of the Stonehaven chorus. This is a road that scares me with its fast traffic. Toccata Trilinea also has many fast moving lines because it is indeed a proper toccata. However, it did not scare me. Although the harmonic language is edgy, it is also very alluring. I was reminded, and John Hearne will not agree with this, and I am certain it is not in any way intentional, of some of the music of Bernard Herrmann. Well, no matter, I like Herrmann’s music and I enjoyed John Hearne’s piece every bit as much.

It was good programming to follow Hearne’s Toccata with a piece by the American composer Sarah Rimkus. Window Image is also inspired by the idea of travel on road or rail in this case. Sarah Rimkus told us that the idea for her piece came from her times travelling and looking out of bus or train windows at places she would never otherwise visit. She pointed out that things close by go past at great speed while things in the distance seem to move much more slowly. This was well represented by the different layers of her music. The piece opened on the organ with great transparency of sound. Her musical lines were separate but woven together with considerable clarity. Her organ sounds were quite orchestral in their swell and span. Her piece showed a fine understanding of the possibilities inherent in the tonalities of the organ.

Timothy Raymond told us that part of the inspirational idea for his piece entitled simply Nocturne, was a vision of a dew laden Japanese garden. That suggests extremes of design or modelling along with a deep sense of atmosphere. Those ideas are clearly heard in Raymond’s music, in his florid but flowing melodic lines or his descending scale patterns. There is more than a hint of birdsong in the music and I thought for a moment of Messiaen although Raymond’s harmonies and melodic writing are not as challenging. I liked what he described as blues-like harmonies at the end of the piece and it its atmospheric power fulfilled the promise of the title so very well.

Phillip Cooke’s Epitaph was written as a memorial piece following on the death of Sir John Tavener. It opens with dark rather sad but thoroughly consonant slow moving harmonies. I like to think of Cooke as being among composers whose music I would call ‘new tonality’. It is certainly tonal but also new and exploratory. This is a well shaped work and very emotionally powerful. There are rippling upper lines above slow moving lower melody and the piece is in well defined sections with a swelling of sound suggesting a glow of light before darker music suggests a return to the opening of the work.

Philip Cooke’s colleague at Aberdeen University music Professor Pete Stollery composed a piece entitled B3:dz (Birds) to celebrate the 60th birthday of Richard Turbet, librarian at the University of Aberdeen who is an expert on the music of William Byrd. Stollery includes multiple ‘bird’ references within his piece including Ornithology, a piece by Charlie Parker who was known as ‘Bird’ and many others. With the bird sounds this piece harked back in the recital to Timothy Raymond’s piece. The organ music was firmly tonal and there was a delightful accompanying electro-acoustic halo surrounding the organ. These were decidedly bird-like sounds.

In a way, the final piece in the recital harked back to the opening with another toccata, The King’s Toccata by John McLeod. He described the organ as being like a huge orchestra with a similar range of power and colour. This was how many of the romantic French organ composers regarded the instrument. This piece was recorded by Roger Williams on the organ of King’s College Chapel Cambridge which University was Roger Williams’s Alma Mater.

The work we were told was based on a twelve tone row but also included a quotation from the Renaissance composer Robert Carver so in a sense McLeod’ s piece spans almost the entire history of Western music. The toccata has a powerful energetic thrust. It is splendidly well-shaped and takes us on a recognisable musical journey ending on a magnificent chord. What a marvellous conclusion to a concert with so many different styles that are all current in the music of today.       

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