Durham Cathedral Choir Association

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INTRODUKTION UND PASSACAGLIA (D moll)                             MAX REGER (1873-1916)

Reger was a dominating force in the organ world of his day. His music has been much criticised, not least on account of its turgid complexity; yet in fact it was rooted very much in the tradition of Bach, Brahms and Mendelssohn, and his harmonic language was firmly of the nineteenth century.

The Introduktion and Passacaglia in D minor eschews the length and the technical difficulty of many of Reger’s organ works, yet it achieves a most powerful impact. The Introduction, with its arrestingly discordant opening, sets a scene of grandeur. The Passacaglia open quietly, but gains force remorselessly and unrelentingly throughout its length, bursting memorably into the major key at the opening of the twelfth and final variation. The discords of the opening are repeated, and resolved, in the final cadence.

CANTILENE from Sonata No. 11                                                                                                                                          JOSEPH RHEINBERGER (1839-1901)

A prolific composer who was appointed organist of his local church at the age of seven, Rheinberger has been a victim of the swings and roundabouts of fashion to an unhappy degree. Even the twenty organ sonatas for which he is chiefly remembered fell out of fashion for some time in recent years, and only slowly are they beginning to be appreciated, aided by a clearer understanding of the sort of instrument they were written for - and, to be honest, not all are of the same quality as the best-known ones.

This Cantilène forms the second movement of the D minor Sonata (it is in the relative major). The solo line is floated above a sustained left-hand accompaniment and a pedal line constructed of upward and downward octave leaps, strongly reminiscent of that in the middle movement of J.S. Bach’s Toccata, Adagio and Fugue. For all the gaucherie of Rheinberger’s harmonic language (at least to modern ears), this unpretentious little work has a charming effect.

PSALM-PRELUDE, Opus 32 No. 3                                                                                                                                            HERBERT HOWELLS (1892-1983)

Like the French organist-composer featured in this record, Howells was a great improviser: it is said that while he was in charge of the music in St. John’s College Chapel, Cambridge, during the Second World War, he never played a printed voluntary. Yet despite its apparently improvisatory quality, this work is nevertheless tightly structured.

It is the last of Howells’ first set of psalm-preludes, published in 1921, and it takes as its starting-point a verse from Psalm 23: “yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me.”

Howells often used the device of a dreamy, contemplative start, rising by degrees to an impassioned outburst, and falling away again as if in exhausted but trusting resignation; but never is this structure better employed than here, where the mood is underlined by a throbbing, pulsing crotchet figure which runs almost throughout the work.

BERCEUSE, Opus 96                                                                                                                                                                     WILLIAM MATHIAS (born 1934)

The composer has provided the following note:

This work was commissioned by the Newbury Spring Festival in association with Southern Arts, and it was first performed by James Lancelot on 9 May, 1985 in St. Nicholas, Church, Newbury.

The title ‘Berceuse’ is normally taken to imply a lullaby. Here, however, the meaning is far more that of an Elegy - the music reflecting disturbed (and even disruptive) feelings which it nevertheless whishes to ultimately quieten and control. In formal terms the work develops to a point of climax, followed by a resolving (but yet questioning) coda.

© Note by the composer, 1987

SONATA NO. 2 in C                                                                                                                                                                 FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)

Grave: Adagio: Allegro maestoso e vivace: Fuga - Allegro moderato

The second of six sonatas published in 1845 in London, this work obeys many of the conventions of the earlier English voluntary form (indeed, Mendelssohn’s original commission from his publisher was for three voluntaries). The solemn opening grave gives place to a tenderly flowing slow movement, and the majestic third movement (which seems to convey a feeling of slightly mock pomposity) leads into the final fugue - not a particularly strict fugue, but one whose constant motion gives it a wonderfully lively effect, and whose mood, complementing so absolutely the moods of the other movements, makes it the perfect conclusion to this much-loved work.

PASSACAILLE (1944)                                                                                                                                                                       FRANK MARTIN (1890-1974)

Frank Martin’s Passacaille, despite being the only organ work of this Swiss composer, is one of the most noteworthy contributions to the twentieth-century organ repertoire: indeed, it must be accounted one of the greatest modern passacaglias. In his First Piano Concerto, written ten years earlier, Martin had embraced twelve-note serialism, and he was on of the great teachers of this method; but despite the construction of this work, and its use of a ground-bass which contains (in either of its versions) eleven of the twelve notes of the scale, there is a strong sense of tonality.

The work opens with an announcements of the ground-bass followed by six straightforward variations, often with a balancing counter-subject in the top line, The next six variations present the theme in a more fragmented, indirect manner, with the pedal-line often silent or broken by rests.But then the mood becomes more decisive, and there are thirteen variations in which the theme is heard a semitone higher each time, culminating in a magnificent return to the home key of D sharp minor at variation twenty-five. Two further variations, with the theme heard above pedal-points, bring the work to a thrilling conclusion.

POSTLUDE POUR L’OFFICE DE COMPLIES                                                                                                                                         JEHAN ALAIN (1911-1940)

Alain’s death, from a stray bullet in World War II, deprieved the twentieth century of one of its most individual composers. Even in this tiny work, something of the quality of Alain’s unique sound-world is apparent.

The piece has its origin in the Alain family’s visits to the Abbey of Valloires, where Jehan was particularly struck by singing of Compline by the women’s voices. Sometimes he would prolong the mood of the service by improvising, and this is how this piece came to be composed.

Alain, aged only nineteen at the time, has created out of the simplest of materials and extraordinarily numinous piece. Against a gentle lullaby rhythm reminiscent of bells, the right hand and pedal weave a web of ancient Compline themes, heard sometimes in full, sometimes in fragments, following one after the other as if in the mists of recollection: “Have mercy upon me, O Lord ... Before the ending of the day...Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit...Save us, O Lord, waking...Glory be to the Father, and to the Son...Amen...Amen...Amen...”

HYMNE D’ACTION DE GRÂCE “TE DEUM”                                                                                                                                       JEAN LANGLAIS (born 1907)

This is the third of the Trois Paraphrases Grégoriennes published in 1935. Built on the plainsong theme “Te Deum laudamus”, it opens with the theme grandly stated on enclosed full Swell, interrupted by massive outbursts of full organ. The theme is then restated in a different key above a solemn, brooding accompaniment, the pedals reiterating the first three notes of the theme in a long note-values. By wonderfully sinuous and individual modulations the home key is regained, and the plainsong theme emerges in full splendour.

Despite being blind since childhood, Langlais, like Vierne before him, has become one of the most respected composers, improvisers and teachers in Paris, Since 1945 he has been organist of the church of Ste-Clotilde, a post once held by César Franck. “Te Deum”, perhaps his most well-known work, shows to the fullest Vierne’s ability to combine Gregorian chant, his own harmonic idiom, and the sonority of a large instrument to build an atmosphere of tremendous splendour, and to produce a work which , when played liturgically, is able to transport the worshipper and complete a service in the most tellingly powerful manner.

© James Lancelot 1987


Great European Organs No. 5

PRCD 228

£ 10.-

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Max Reger

Introduction and Passacaglia

Joseph Rheinberger

Cantilène (from Sonata No.11)  

Herbert Howells

Psalm-prelude, Opus 32 No.3

William Matthias

Berceuse, Opus 96

Felix Mendelssohn

Sonata No.2 in C

Frank Martin


Jehan Alain

Postlude pour l’Office de Complies  

Jean Langlais

Hymne d’Action de Grâce “Te Deum”