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27 October - 28 November 2007
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University Music
20 November 2007

A recital of contemporary organ music

Roger Williams was on tip-top form on Tuesday as he delivered one of the most fascinating and exciting recitals given so far on the Aubertin Organ. The instrument sounded remarkably happy even with the most extravagant extremes of the contemporary idiom. The recital both opened and closed with the same astonishing piece, Volumina composed in the early 1960s by the Hungarian composer (b. Transylvania 1923) György Ligeti. Here is a composer whose work inhabits the outer limits of experimental 20th Century music, yet one of his pieces, Lux aeterna became widely known and even popular after 1968 when Stanley Kubrick used it in his film 2001: A Space Odyssey. To quote a review of the time, “…this choral piece took an honoured place in the film, fascinating the unlikeliest listeners with its evocative clouds of vocal sound”. I am not sure what some of the audience, many of whom will not have experienced the music of Ligeti before thought of it. Even I, who having bought the record of Lux aeterna many years ago was not quite prepared for the opening “chord”. This piece for organ bears some resemblance to the composer’s Lux aeterna. The term “clouds of sound” seems an apt description of what the music delivers. Here Ligeti has subsumed the elements of melody and rhythm into the generation of ever shifting timbres and textures. He allows his clouds of organ sound to disperse gradually before letting them boil up again suddenly. Even the leaps in pitch that take place later in the piece become perceived as changes in musical colour and texture rather than changes in pitch. This astonishing performance was achieved by Roger Williams with the help of two students who were constantly employed in changing the stops. The piece was performed twice with the ending of the second performance the more successful, and if I dare say so, the most beautiful. Here I am indebted to Professor Pete Stollery who gave the most strikingly insightful comment about it being like the dying away of a firework against a black sky.

There were lots more musical fireworks to come in this recital and if there were to be a second underlying label to mark the whole concert it could surely be summed up in the word Toccata. The first piece to fit the bill was by Froberger. His Toccata III (Libro Quattro, 1656) followed by Capriccio VI (c 1658) were examples of music that would have astonished the listeners of his day though after the Ligeti piece, the initial impression was of music from a much more conventional and recognisable musical world. It brought smiles to the faces of some of the audience who had looked aghast during the opening piece.

There followed the world premiere of a piece specially composed for this occasion, Toccata Trilinea by John Hearne. This was an ingenious piece that exploited minimalism, multi-tonality and tremendous rhythmic drive to produce sounds that shouted “toccata” from the rooftops and Roger Williams brought it to life with generous helpings of verve and dexterity.

The music of J. S. Bach always seems to represent a quantum leap in music following even his most gifted predecessors. It is as if the jet fighter had come the year after the Wright Brothers’ first flight. Roger Williams gave a glorious performance of the Prelude and Fugue in b minor BWV544. The prelude came bursting forth packed with colour and excitement while the drive, energy and admirable steadiness with which Roger Williams imbued the fugue, served to underline the sheer brilliance of the music itself.

The second composer to be present at the recital and hear his own music was Jonathan Stephens. Roger played two movements of a longer piece, Aria and Epilogue: Alleluias (Laudate Dominum). The gentle translucent textures of the first movement were followed by more lively and edgy music. I perceived just a suggestion of the rhythm and harmonies to be found in the music of Hindemith (one of my favourite composers) so no complaints from me then.

Before the repeat of Volumina by Ligeti, we heard another of Froberger’s pieces, the Toccata V da sonarsi alla levitatione (Libro Quatro). Although its title bears the label Toccata, it must be one of the gentlest examples of its type. It allowed the more conventional minded members of the audience to catch their breath before Roger Williams took them on another crazy plunge through the multicoloured clouds of Ligeti’s music.

Copyright Alan Cooper
Thanks to University Music



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