GMCD 7368 – Organ Duets by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Langlais, Tomkins, Carleton, Johnstone, Leighton

Charles Harrison & David Leigh at the Organ of Lincoln Cathedral

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American Record Guide – July 2012

Organ duets—two players at a single console—are something of an oddity, but when they are as well played as this, they can be thrilling. Charles Harrison is assistant director of music and sub organist at Lincoln Cathedral, so the recording was made on his home turf. David Leigh is assistant organist at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin. Their playing is so unanimous in ensemble and so animated that it is easy to forget that there are two players.
The program opens with their own arrangement of Mozart’s Fantasia in F minor (K 608), a work originally composed for a clockwork organ, an instrument Mozart despised. Most often it is heard on solo organ, but then some details of part writing and ornamentation must be sacrificed. A duet arrangement can come closer to the composer’s intentions, as the piece was written without having to take into account the limitations of human performers. Harrison and Leigh dazzle with their virtuosity and excellent ensemble. The outer sections exhibit the full power of the 1898 Willis organ at Lincoln Cathedral, while the central variations display the instrument’s quieter registers. It is worth noting another recent recording of a duet arrangement of K 608 by Olivier Vernet and Cedric Meckler on the 2004 Bernard Aubertin organ at the church of Saint-Louis en l’ile in Paris (Ligia 104171; May/June 2011), an instrument very different in character from the Lincoln Willis.
When Mendelssohn was in London in 1833 he was the house guest of Thomas Attwood (1765-1838), the organist of St Paul’s Cathedral and a former pupil of Mozart. When Attwood invited Mendelssohn to play the voluntary following a service at St Paul’s, he improvised a fugue in C minor that is thought to have been the earliest version of the one included here. Its definitive form is as part of the three Preludes & Fugues, Opus 37 (1837) dedicated to Attwood. In William Little’s edition of the duet version of the fugue, the registration is marked full at the opening, and there are no indications of registration change. Harrison and Leigh treat the piece as an orchestral crescendo, beginning quietly and building to a thunderous conclusion. The changes of registration seem contrived and unconvincing. Apart from some minor details, the duet fugue in D is the same as in the second of the six Preludes & Fugues, Opus 35 (1837) for piano. Attwood is thought to have requested both of these duet arrangements.
The three Fantasies for Two Organists by Jean Langlais (1907-91) were prompted by his hearing a performance of the organ duet sonata by Gustav Merkel. The influence of Messiaen is evident in Langlais’s pieces.
Harrison and Leigh point out in the notes that organ duet writing probably started in England. The pieces by Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) and Nicholas Carleton (1570-1630) are among the earliest examples. They are not played here on the large Willis organ, but on a smaller instrument of one manual and pedals in the cathedral’s retro choir.
Andrew Johnstone (b 1967) is a lecturer in music at Trinity College, Dublin, and a friend of David Leigh. ‘Shack-up and Feud’ (referring to another friend’s dread of disharmony in cohabitation) was written for a duo-recital in 1997. It is a chaconne and fugue, and the composer has managed the part-writing, harmony, and musical layers to make it clear that there are two performers.
The piece that would alone be worth the price of admission, both for the piece itself and the brilliant performance on an instrument that seems perfectly suited to it, is ‘Martyrs’ by Kenneth Leighton (1929-88). It is based on what Leighton himself calls “the greatest of the Scottish psalm tunes”. As with so many of Leighton’s works, this one suggests a struggle that only slowly and with great difficulty reaches its final triumph. It is not for the faint of heart.

MusicWeb International September 2011

Not for nothing is the organ sometimes referred to as the King of Instruments. The player sits with multiple keyboards as well as a pedal board, each capable of a wide variety of tone colours. Brain, hands and feet are kept extremely busy, and even with modern electronic controls to help in changing stops the player may still require an assistant for that purpose as well as for any necessary page-turns. Given all that these resources can achieve it may be hard to imagine what a second player might add or what they could do. I am none the wiser after listening to this disc – perhaps a DVD would make this clearer – but the twentieth century pieces here, in particular, do contain passages the complexity and nature of which would appear to demand a second player. That said, I often think the same of some major modern solo organ works which would seem to the non-organist to require more than the normal number of hands and feet. For the second player to add anything perceptible to the listener more than usual audibility of the results is essential. One important and very gratifying feature of this disc is the comparative clarity of the recording by James Newton. There is little of the mush that too often results from hearing a large instrument in a large building. At the same time there is no feeling of the unrealistic results sometimes achieved by putting microphones adjacent to the organ pipes. Bearing in mind the size of the great Father Willis organ at Lincoln, and of the building itself, the quality of the recording is a special delight in itself.
The Mozart Fantasia is often played as an organ solo. I do not know how the present version differs from those usually played but the result is a particularly dramatic performance which makes it even harder than usual to imagine it played on the mechanical instrument for which it was written. The two Mendelssohn Fugues date from the composer’s visit to London in 1833 and that in C minor – the more interesting of the two – was apparently based on an improvisation in St Paul’s Cathedral. At that date pedals were still a novelty in English organs so that they were published in a version for organ duet for use on organs that still lacked them. The two early pieces by Tomkins and Carleton are played on a single manual organ in the Retro Choir in Lincoln Cathedral. It has a delightful sound wholly appropriate to this music.
Jean Langlais’s duets are even more of a delight. They are varied and immensely imaginative, recalling Messiaen but no mere copies of his style. Andrew Johnstone is a Dublin-based composer. His Shack Up and Feud (a reference to its form as a Chaconne and Fugue) is subtitled “An Argument for Organ Duet” and is intended to make audible use of two players. I am not sure that this is the case throughout but it is a bracing and enjoyable work worth repeated listening. That is the case even more so with the last and longest item on the disc – Kenneth Leighton’s fantasy on the Scottish Psalm Tune “Martyrs”. This reveals its secrets to the listener – or at least this listener – only slowly but it is most certainly worth the effort.
All in all this is a fascinating issue with good playing and recording of what is for the most part rare and welcome repertoire. As usual with Guild the presentation is admirable, with interesting notes and photographs and the specifications of both the organs used.
John Sheppard
All in all this is a fascinating issue with good playing and recording of what is for the most part rare and welcome repertoire.

International Record Review September 2011

As might be imagined, the repertoire for organ duets is small, so in planning a CD of music for this combination one may have to rely on transcriptions to fill it out. Thankfully, although there is one transcription on this new disc, it has been done with a full appreciation of the original music and is entirely convincing in this format Indeed, when one considers that this is the greatest music here – Mozart’s very late Fantasia, K608 – one cannot help but feel that he would have given his enthusiastic endorsement of the result, for in many ways four hands (and four feet!) at four keyboards (plus one pedal-board) gives the transcriber a greater range and palette with which to work, and the result is totally convincing. The Fantasia was originally composed for an automatic clockwork instrument (the Flötenuhr or orgeluhr) and is far more often heard in a version for solo organ, but this edition, by the players on this recording, is particularly effective and is surely more convincing. This alone would make the disc a very worthwhile acquisition, but the range of repertoire here is also particularly tempting. We have two fugues by Mendelssohn, not particularly extended works but also not entirely unsuitable bedfellows for the Mozart (whose youngest son, Franz Xavier, was certainly alive when these pieces were written).
Organ duets, as the booklet notes tell us, were in many ways an English development, and the brief duets by the two Tudor composers Tomkins and Carleton are also well worth having, being most intelligently registered (and sounding more suitable) on the much smaller Retro Choir organ in Lincoln Cathedral. The larger, and more familiar, `Father’ Willis 1898 instrument is used for all the other music, which is exclusively wide-ranging twentieth-century repertoire: in particular, the three `Fantaisies’ by Jean Langlais are of course genuine compositions for two players, the first (`Double fantaisie’) being particularly impressive (as well as being the longest). The oddly titled Shack-up and Feud from Andrew Johnstone (the only living composer in this collection) continues, at a distance of several centuries, the English organ duets repertoire: subtitled `An argument for organ duet’ the `argument’ remains (reasonably) civilized between these musicians. The recital ends with the magnificent large-scale Martyrs by Kenneth Leighton, a deeply impressive fantasia in two parts on the old Scottish psalm tune (with both Tomkins and Carleton having lived well into the Jacobean period, there may be a closer connection than one might at first have imagined).
Throughout this engrossing recital, Charles Harrison and David Leigh play supremely well in such a wide range of music: at all times their performances are particularly convincing and I found myself enjoying this disc far more than I thought I would when I first played it. The recorded quality is first-class, capturing the range of the instruments with notable fidelity; the booklet notes are also good, and of course full details of the organs are included. The result is a strongly recommended release.
Robert Matthew-Walker