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Grande Symphonie
Fernando GERMANI (1906-1998)
Toccata [5:51]
Jonathan T HORNE (1894-1978)
Three Introductory Voluntaries [6:17]
Cesar FRANCK (1822-1890)
Grande Piece Symphonique, Op.17 [24:51]
Eoghan DESMOND (b.1989)
Four Simple Chorale Preludes [8:32]
Edwin LEMARE (1865-1934)
Symphony No.2 in D minor, Op.50 [32:22]
David Leigh (organ)
rec. 2017, St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork, Ireland
PRIORY PRCD1190 [77:53]

The organ of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral in Cork has had a rather unfortunate history. When the Church of Ireland decided to build a new cathedral in Ireland’s second city, the winning design came from the English architect William Bruges (possibly best known for his eccentric fairy-tale Castell Coch at the foot of one of the Welsh valleys near Cardiff) whose idea was to place the organ in a west end gallery. This was regarded by the cathedral ruling body (the Select Vestry) as far too redolent of Rome and they demanded it be placed, in true Anglican fashion, near the choir at the east end. Bruges dug his heels in, and for the cathedral’s consecration in 1870, William Hill was obliged to erect (in the space of just four weeks) a three-manual instrument in Bruges’ west end gallery. This clearly was unsatisfactory and over the course of the next decade, architect and Vestry were in extended dispute over the correct placing of the organ. Bruges’s death in 1881 was marked by the Vestry immediately commissioning a local builder to re-position the organ in a purpose-built pit in the north transept. And there it remained, largely hidden from view and almost totally obscured from aural consciousness for over a century; as Trevor Crowe’s gloriously informative booklet note on the organ’s history points out, “sound from the entombed pipework could only emerge from the confines of the pit by rising vertically, and could only be heard after multiple reflections from the lofty ceiling and walls”. It was Crowe himself who eventually liberated the organ from its subterranean dungeon. In 2013 he was commissioned to rebuild the organ, and he raised the bulk of the pipework to “form a visually coherent array at floor level”.

David Leigh’s programme celebrates the liberated organ, taking us through most of its very substantial stop list (87 stops over four manuals) in big music and gentle miniatures, and in the process introduces us to some hitherto hidden gems of the repertory. Indeed, the only piece here which is firmly established in the repertory is that which lends its title to the disc, César Franck’s epic Grande Pièce Symphonique. Leigh is a master of the epic musical canvas, and he treats this with suitably symphonic scope. From the very opening, we get a sense of spaciousness and of unfolding architectural consciousness, that arresting main theme, introduced by the pedals (3:59) has both stature and energy. Those stalwarts of the 19th century Select Vestry will probably delight in the fact that there is nothing about the sound of this organ which is in any way redolent of the great Roman Catholic Cathedrals of France, but others might be less easily convinced that this Cork organ makes the right sort of sound for this music. Leigh’s performance highlights, not the sound of the music, but the design and intellectual substance of it, and on these terms it is very impressive, the organ supporting him with its robust and often magisterial qualities. The problem with this approach is that there are places where Franck’s invention does rather take a back seat in favour of organ colour (the ending of the first movement is a case in point), and it is here that we miss the distinctive qualities of the kind of solo stops and reed choruses for which Franck was writing. Nowhere is this more of a disappointment than in the 2nd movement Andante where Franck’s “Cromorne/Bourdon/Flûte” combination is so devoid of individuality that the conversational/echo effects around 2:40 are quite lost.

No such concerns elsewhere in the programme where Leigh’s focus on musical rather than aural effect pays handsome dividends. Fernando Germani’s long experience of playing virtuoso showpieces on the organ prompted him to produce one of his own in 1958, and while his Toccata has very strong and obvious antecedents in Dupré’s B major Prelude (a work which we don’t hear anything like often enough either live or recorded), the French influence is played down here with a sound more solidly grounded in the British Isles and allowing Leigh’s athletic fingerwork to shine without the distraction of an attention-grabbing organ tone.

Two Irish composers are represented in music which is short, simple but highly effective on its own terms. J T Horne (a former organist of St Fin Barre’s Cathedral) composed these three short Voluntaries, none lasting much over a couple of minutes, in the late 1930s, and while we might feel the ghost of Mendelssohn breathing rather heavily on to the opening Adagio, and the spirit of Stanford making its presence felt in the second and third (Andante and Lento) what distinguishes these three pieces is the elegance and craftsmanship of the writing. A former chorister at St Fin Barre’s, Eoghan Desmond produced this suite of four preludes based on the Dutch carol “King Jesus Hath a Garden” in 2016. However, they do not so much elaborate on this theme as evoke the atmosphere of four of the Roman Catholic offices of the day (another nail in the coffin for the Protestant stalwarts of the 19th century Select Vestry). The first (“Matins”) maintains a persistent bell-chime figure while a solo line trills its way into the air - in the composer’s own words - like “the beginnings of bird song”. The second evokes the cock crowing at dawn (the time of “Lauds”) in a jaunty statement of the carol theme, and the final two ooze prayerfulness and contemplation, with “Compline” seeming to indicate through its lumpy statement of the theme, the chanting of monks befuddled by sleep. Leigh captures the scale and intimacy of all these miniatures in some endearingly affectionate performances.

The disc’s title also pays homage to the second of Edwin Lemare’s organ symphonies, the first of which Leigh has already committed to disc (PRCD1168). The Second Symphony is almost 10 minutes shorter than the First, but clocking in at the best part of half-an-hour, is still a pretty gargantuan thing, and it is a testament to both Leigh’s broad musical vision and the Cork organ’s richness of tone, that the piece never seems in danger of outstaying its welcome. There’s something of the César Franck about the strutting opening, with its immediate sense of tension, but the booklet tells us that this was originally conceived for orchestra, and there is a little bit of me that wishes that Lemare’s original plan had been carried through, for superbly as Leigh manages the resources of the instrument, and powerful though his grasp of Lemare’s writing is, there are large tracts of rather solid workmanship which would surely have been greatly alleviated by the spacious elements of orchestral writing. All the same, this is a very impressive performance which pays generous homage to a man whose reputation as one of the most successful virtuoso organists of all time has tended to obscure his stature as a composer.

Marc Rochester

 

 




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