GMCD 7209 – Reflections – Organ Music by Jennifer Bate played by the Composer
Jennifer Bate – Organ
Methodist Recorder – May 2002
Reflections – Organ Music by Jennifer Bate (Guild GMCD 7209) is a disc in which this world-renowned English organist shows her composing skill in a collection of eight short works spanning 25 years. Some were written in as widely separated places as Norway and Italy while on tour. Most were composed at the request of friends and colleagues. Each is enhanced in listening by the excellent sleeve notes provided and the organ of the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, is exploited to the full in a masterly fashion. These reflections, personal in nature, give a fascinating insight into the mind of a great organist as she gives us such a wide-ranging performance on the king of instruments.
Organists August 2001
Jennifer Bate is best known as an organist (not least for her widely-acclaimed complete Messiaen recordings). In this release, we see her as a composer performing her own music. Her compositional style is notably eclectic, although predominantly French in influence, ranging from the spontaneous, opening Toccata… to the Whitlock-esque final movement of the Gregorian theme Variations. Her deft handling of form can be seen throughout the works, most notably in the trios and canons on the Gregorian theme Variations, the final fugue from the Introduction and Variations…, and the Pastoral Palindrome (playable forwards or backwards) from the Four Reflections. Some well-crafted miniatures, such as Il filatoio (‘The Spinning-wheel’) and the Lament, complete the programme.
The Willis III/IV at the Brangwyn Hall does suffer a little from a dry acoustic and under-winded tutti combinations. This should not deter the listener: here is a disc reminding us that the organist-composer still flourishes on these shores.
Classics on the Web
Many members know Jennifer Bate as a remarkable organist whose celebrated recordings of Messiaen’s organ music are milestones in this composer’s discography. She has also recorded a lot of British organ music, most outstanding being her six CDs, recorded some years ago for UNICORN.
Bate is also a composer of no mean achievement as the present release demonstrates. Her organ music may not be as startlingly innovative as, say, Messiaen’s but it is superbly crafted, colourful, quite effective though it may not always be easy to play. It is clearly the work of a composer who has a deep understanding of the instrument and who knows how to bring the best out of it.
The short and brilliant Toccata on a Theme of Martin Shaw was written in 1972 and was Jennifer Bate’s first published work; a piece that should find a permanent place in the organist’s repertoire of short virtuoso works either as recital opener or encore.
Introduction and Variations on an Old French Carol (1982) is “a miniature demonstration of the tonal resources [of the organ]”. The five, concise and contrasted variations display the instrument’s numerous resources and, as such, the piece might have been titled “A Young Person’s Guide to the Organ”.
We are not told when the Four Reflections were written nor if they were written as a set. However these four pieces (Reverie, Norwegian Barcarolle, Cantilena and Pastoral Palindrome) are quite enjoyable and have become a favourite of mine.
Homage to 1685 won the prize, sponsored by The Carnegie Trust in 1985, for a composition to celebrate the tercentenary of Bach, Handel and Domenico Scarlatti. Originally the suite had six movements and we are not told what happened to the two movements dropped in the meantime. The first movement Moto Perpetuo based on the well-known BACH motive is followed by a lively Gigue on a Theme of Scarlatti. The slow movement, which does not seem to borrow any material from any of the three composers, is just content to sing along and is then followed by a Postlude on a Theme of Handel (in fact the so-called Harmonious Blacksmith) which brings the work to a brilliant conclusion. This superb piece is by far the most ambitious work in this collection and should be eagerly taken-up by organists willing to explore some new repertoire. Many of Jennifer Bate’s works were either written for or prompted by friends. This is the case with Il Filatoio, An English Canon (or Canone Inglese per la Festa di Garbagna to give it its full title) and the simple, yet deeply moving Lament.
This release closes with yet another example of that much favoured organ genre, i.e. a set of variations. The Variations on a Gregorian Theme are based on a plainsong for Vespers, first Sunday in Advent Conditor alme siderum. There are six contrasted variations of which the last is a homage to Percy Whitlock “deliberately imitating the way he wrote”. A quite effective piece.
I believe that Jennifer Bate’s music should appeal to organists willing to investigate some new, accessible repertoire but the quality of the music is such that it should also appeal to anyone simply enjoying well-crafted, colourful and tuneful music. This is not only for organ buffs! Needless to say Jennifer Bate’s performances are superb and receive a beautiful recording. Well worth investigating.
Classics on the Web – 28.02 2001
Jennifer Bate has a busy schedule that takes her all over the world performing in festivals, giving recitals, and lecturing etc. She is a Vice-President of the British Music Society. The music on this album covers 25 years of composition.
The ‘Hills of the North’ well rejoice to Bate’s Toccata on a Theme of Martin Shaw. Martin Shaw (1875-1958) was an English composer and organist; and he was a great campaigner for better church music. Following Shaw’s theme, the Toccata builds in a series of canons to a commanding and majestic finale. [Shaw’s well-known tune Little Conrad was written for the hymn Hills of the North, rejoice.]
The Introduction and Variations on an Old French Carol. The carol known in England as Picardy is sung to Let all mortal flesh keep silence. The Five Variations embrace a variety of moods from the serene to the capricious and dramatic; and include Gregorian plainchant, a quirky march, and fugal treatment.
The Four Reflections are nicely evocative. Gentle ripples haunt Reverie that has two themes; the first stated on delicate flutes, while the second has rich string chords and is seraphic and dream-like. The melodious Norwegian Barcarole seems to imply falling snow but it is a comforting landscape. Cantilena is a romantic conversation piece between soprano and tenor pipes accompanied by flutes. Pastoral Palindrome is dedicated to Bates’s mother who enjoyed its effect and logic. It is fun because this musical palindrome can literally be played forwards or backwards.
Homage to 1685, as the name implies, is an imaginative, intricate and colourful and majestic technical tour-de-force homage to the music of Bach, Scarlatti (treating his famous ‘Cat Fugue’), and Handel.
Commissioned by Italian friends and composed whilst in South America, the versatility of the organ is well demonstrated in Il Filatoio. Repetitive, whirling notes, softly played, are strongly evocative of the spinning wheel.
Canone Inglese per la festa di Garbagna written for an Italian church is an endearing little piece combining the peal of the church’s bells with a light-hearted reference to the British national anthem.
The spare transparent textures of Lament written in 1997, lead from a stark opening through intense mourning through to a more optimistic melody before ending in a mood of resignation.
The Variations on a Gregorian Theme are based on a beautiful plainsong for Vespers for the first Sunday in Advent. These five variations on a Gregorian theme include a canon over a drone bass, a fast trio with central tune, and an Amen accompanied by the theme in cannon. Then follows ethereal chords uniting the tune, and a bold trio, with the tune in pedals, forms the final variation.
For the lover of organ music, this album is a treasure. Jennifer Bate demonstrates her command of the instrument; her technique ranging from loud and bold to soft and delicate, showing immense variety, colour and style. Fifty minutes of sheer pleasure.
[The organ at Brangwyn Hall was built by Willis & Son in 1919 and moved to its present home 15 years later. The instrument was restored and additions made by the same firm in 1980 and 1994. The booklet gives a full specification of this magnificent instrument and we are told that “a generous array of playing aids are available at the console including adjustable manual and toe pistons controlled by a solid state 24 channel capture system and a general crescendo pedal”]