Reviews

GMCD 7225 – Wondrous Machine! Orgna Works by Arthur Wills with Jeremy Filsell

Jeremy Filsell – Organ

To the CD in our Shop


Organists‘ Review – February 2002

The title of this recording is taken from the largest-scale work in the programme the full title of which is Wondrous Machine!: A Young Person’s Guide to the Organ – Variations and Fugue on a theme by Henry Purcell. My review of the music can be found on page 275 of OR Aug 2001; important details of the composition are conspicuously lacking in the CD booklet notes provided by the composer, which also omit details of the main purpose of the venture.

What can be appreciated immediately is the fact that a very well-filled CD is devoted entirely to the organ works of Arthur Wills (b1926), very wide-ranging as they are in time of composition, from Postlude [1959, No 11] to The New Millennium Rag [1999, No 10] 40 years on; in length, from less than 90 seconds [No 7] to all but 20 minutes [No 51]; and in genre, from Prelude and Fugue [No 3] to Rags [Nos 5 & 10]. Respect and devotion can be sensed in the virtuosic skill brought to the various pieces by Jeremy Filsell at the Tonbridge School Marcussen. He is characteristically unflagging in execution of often demanding organ writing, always seeking out and communicating the musical line and interest, adding a feather in his cap to the many proudly and properly on display already.

The programme is not concerned with chronology – even in reverse, as No 11 is one of the composer’s earliest compositions. The concern is with variety of musical character, the flamboyant opening Carillon being followed by a more relaxed Song without Words, and so on, with some well-placed Scherzi. Consequently, it is possible to listen for nearly 80 minutes without fatigue or a trace of boredom. In general style I have often felt a French influence in Dr Wills’ music; listening to this present compilation I have become aware of the influence of Hindemith at times as well, together with – pleasingly and unexpectedly – that of the doyen of British organist-composers, Francis Jackson. Which is to say that colour, musical coherence, compositional rigour, and what can only be described as integrity are to be found, whether the genre is sacred or secular, from Orientis Partibus to different types of Rag.

Arthur Wills is not the composer to waste his time in empty gestures, simply to make an impressive effect nor is Jeremy Filsell the executant to be concerned primarily with speed for its own sake, just to display technical accomplishment. Dr Wills must be delighted with the choice of tempi that suit the music so well; and Filsell’s enjoyment of the Marcussen – so very even in its voicing – will greatly appeal to all listeners. Some timbres were drawn from the instrument – in particular in No 9, a work written in a ‘spirit of homage to classical French organ music’- which sent me to the specification to see how they were achieved. We are given full details of the organ, but none of registration – which perhaps all adds to the fun.

Guild advertise this recording as a 75th birthday tribute to Arthur Wills, but omit to mention the fact to purchasers. They see fit to have the notes translated into French and German, but give very little warning that the main work includes (in English only) a spoken narration by Dr Wills in verse – or, in reality, vers libre; versifying, the character of which I have alluded to in my OR review, which must mystify some English-speaking listeners, let alone French or German, in its unannounced inclusion and in its literary quality. Surely each narration could have been banded so that with manipulation of the CD player optional omission of the spoken parts could be achieved, pleasing as it is to hear Dr Wills’ voice – once. For GUILD to release the first recording of what the composer regards as his ‘big and unusual work’- even titling the CD after the piece – with so little regard for listeners’ comprehension and convenience strikes me as cavalier, even careless.

Putting this aside, the welcome opportunity is provided to wish Arthur Wills many more years of composing activity to come, with due respect and devotion, to which I would add, with admiration and sincere congratulations. If GUILD can give us the Complete Works, if the six named sponsors can have their arms gently twisted, then engage Jeremy Filsell, book the Marcussen, and we can all continue to enjoy the output of a much-admired English composer, the faithful commitment of a leading English recitalist, the sound of a fine instrument in a sympathetic acoustic. Give us the works, GUILD.
Graham Matthews


Choir and Organ January/February 02

Tonbridge is again the venue for a well-filled selection of Arthur Wills’s organ music by a former assistant of his, Jeremy Filsell. It is notable for the variety and volume of the music and the fluency with which iits ideas are developed, rarely missing ist mark – rags and grotesque scherzos rum shoulders with chorales and fugues. All this music is played with Filsell’s customary commitment and incisiveness.

Arthur Wills, who celebrated his 75th birthday in September 2001, was Director of Music at Ely Cathedral from 1958 to 1990. In one way it’s a pity that these recordings were not made in the organ loft where he presided with such distinction but the very fine Tonbridge instrument, built as recently as 1995, serves his music very well.

The programme chosen for this recital presents a nicely varied overview of his large portfolio of organ compositions. All the music is as accessible to the listener as it must be difficult for the performer. As you would expect from such an experienced recitalist Wills exploits the full tonal range of the organ but one never feels that the music has simply been written for display purposes.

The recital opens with a brilliant toccata, very much in the cathedral tradition, but the following piece, like much else that follows, is much more secular in character. In his notes (in which he offers entertaining asides about the background to the various compositions) Dr. Wills relates that he originally thought of transcribing Rachmaninov’s celebrated ‘Vocalise’ for organ. Eventually he decided to produce an original composition instead and the result is a highly effective piece which is, in Wills’ words, “a homage with some reference to [Rachmaninov’s] inimitable idiom.”

The “Alkmaar” Prelude and Fugue was written expressly to be played at a recital on an organ in that Dutch city. Wills also relates that he envisaged the piece as a homage to the North German school of organists, including Buxtehude. The result is a commanding and testing piece which, like everything else on the disc, is dispatched with aplomb by Jeremy Filsell.

“The Ely Imps” is an atmospheric and, dare one say it, “impish” scherzo inspired by some gargoyles in the choir of Ely cathedral. Apparently it is based on a plainchant theme though this is not easy to spot. The plainchant becomes the basis for a whirling, spiralling display piece. Tremendous fun! Later on in the programme there’s another equally successful though very different scherzo. Such tours de force are obviously a Wills speciality.

The work which gives the CD its title could, perhaps be subtitled “The Organist’s Riposte to Britten”. Cheekily, Wills re-cycles the title of Britten’s celebrated orchestral “guidebook”. Furthermore, he uses for his material a (different) theme by the same composer, Purcell. Wills himself delivers the narration and I’m sorry to say I find this a bit of a distraction (just as the narration in Britten’s work distracts when given in its original format – which is fairly rare these days, I think). The music itself is expertly crafted to show off the full resources of the organ and is very entertaining (who could resist the perky, tongue-in cheek Rag movement?). The last three of the fourteen short sections are played without the intervention of narration and this allows an impressive build up to the full-throated finale. I’d be interested to hear the whole piece without narration.

The other substantial piece in the recital is the Variations on a Carol. The source material is a carol by Wills himself, ‘I sing the birth was born tonight’, composed in the same year, 1965. The composer describes the eleven variations as being in the “spirit of homage to French organ music.” Of course, given Jeremy Filsell’s well-known affinity with the French repertoire, the work is in particularly safe hands here. Certainly these Variations are highly effective and also very enjoyable to hear. They build to a tumultuous and exciting conclusion.

To conclude, two splendidly entertaining short pieces. The New Millennium Rag is built on three well-known hymn tunes although Wills disguises them expertly. It is an infectious encore piece, delivered here with the appropriate degree of panache by Filsell. The exuberant Postlude is in a similar vein to the opening Carillon and closes the programme with a suitable flourish.

This is a splendid 75th birthday tribute to Arthur Wills. It is probably an indication of the respect in which he is held amongst fellow organists that the list of sponsors of the project who are credited in the notes includes at least two other British organists. Jeremy Filsell plays the entire programme with a virtuosity which is seemingly effortless and he conjures some exhilarating timbres and sonorities from the Tonbridge organ. The recorded sound is first rate. This disc will give great pleasure to “organ buffs” and to a wider audience, too, I hope. Recommended.
John Quinn


BBC Music Magazine December 2001

Unfailingly well-crafted and effectively written for the instrument, Arthur Will’s organ music has much to offer in terms of tt6ylistic interest for both listener and performer. The versatile Marcusson instrument at Tonbridge School Chapel serves the music splendidly, as does the excellent Jeremy Filsell.
Stephen Haylett

Classical Music on the Web 28. September 2001

Choirmaster, organist and professor at the Royal Academy of Music until 1992, Arthur Wills is also a distinguished composer whose output includes an opera Winston and Julia based on Orwell’s 1984, several song cycles, an Organ Concerto, a suite for organ and brass The Fenlands and – of course – a good deal of organ music of which the present release offers a fine cross-section (mainly of works written over the last twenty years or so).

Nevertheless, the earliest pieces here are the Postlude of 1959. This, quite appropriately, rounds off this splendid release and there are also two movements (Arioso and Intermezzo) from his Five Pieces (1961). The song-like Arioso is based on material from the slow movement of the orchestral symphony submitted for his Doctoral degree at the University of Durham in 1958, whereas the Intermezzo is a more varied, colourful piece exploiting the organ’s resources to the full.

The CD opens with Carillon on “Orientibus Partibus” (1976), a brilliant Toccata in all but name. It is based on a tune known as “The Song of the Ass”. A colourful, lively opener indeed.

Song without Words of 1994, subtitled “In Memoriam Sergei Rachmaninov”, was written after the composer had abandoned the idea of transcribing Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. It evokes Rachmaninov’s ubiquitous piece in a remarkably restrained way and is really moving.

The Prelude and Fugue “Alkmaar” was written in 1971 for a concert in Alkmaar, in the Netherlands. Wills first thought of playing an earlier, similarly titled, piece written in 1963 which proved unfit for the Alkmaar organ. Wills then replaced it with this new piece.

The Scherzo-Fantasy “The Ely Imps”, completed in 1994, brilliantly evokes the curious grotesque known as “The Ely Imps” – a delightful, colourful “impish” Scherzo. It is based on the plainchant Sequence used on the Feasts of St Ethelreda. Wills also used this in three other works.

The longest and most ambitious piece here is Wondrous Machine!, subtitled “A Young Person’s Guide to the Organ”. Britten’s celebrated orchestral piece, a Variations-and-Fugue on a theme by Henry Purcell is its pattern. The theme is from Purcell’s Ode Hail, Bright Cecilia on Nicholas Brady’s poem celebrating. the “superlative majesty of the organ above all other instruments”. This efficiently and brilliantly conceived work displays the many expressive facets of the King of Instruments. The variations, all fairly short, are well contrasted and even include a delightful Rag redolent of Scott Joplin. The whole set is capped by a lively, brilliant and imposing Fugue. This superb piece is for narrator (Wills himself in this recording) and organ, although we are not told whether or not the narrator’s part is optional.

Another brilliant Scherzo, High Hills and Stony Rocks, of 1990 is followed by another major work, Variations on a Carol, (1965) which might also have been subtitled “A Young Person’s Guide to the Organ” for the variations on an original carol composed by Wills in 1965, are also designed to exploit the many colours and tonal contrasts of the instrument. I am in no doubt that this is a major work that deserves wider exposure. It should be eagerly picked up by enterprising organists.

The New Millenium Rag (1999) evokes “the bands that Louis Armstrong grew up with” rather than Scott Joplin’s spirit as was the case in the eighth variation of Wondrous Machine! This is a truly delightful piece that should also be popular with organists and audiences alike.

Jeremy Filsell is excellent throughout this demanding, though highly enjoyable, selection of Wills’ superbly crafted, varied and colourful music. A most welcome release to be enjoyed not only by organ buffs but also by all those who respond to the organ music of Leighton or Mathias.
Hubert Culot