It's (almost) that time of year again, and why not start early with a disc of organ music? The mince pies are in ths shops, after all ...
This well-planned recital centres on pieces inspired by tunes (Lutheran chorales, plainchant, French Noëls, medieval carols) that have traditionally formed the basis for Christmas organ music. It is performed on the four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ of Belfast Cathedral (1907, 1975), the second largest pipe organ in Northern Ireland, its magnificent sound beautifully acaught here. Although terh eis the possibilty to wkae the dead with this rogan, there is also so much beauty to be found,a dn Matthew Owens is a master of subtlety (you can hear the two aspects right next to each other in the final two versets of the Gary Davison piece discussed below: see also the Spotify links).
And we do indeed begin with the lovely decending, carollon-lines of the first Variation from Bach's Canonic Variations on "Vom Himmel Hoch," BWV 769a:
The set of variations is performed in its later form, with the alterations Bach made after its first publication. Each Variation is a different sort of canon (octave, fifth, inversion and so on); Owens' performance is sull of joy, particularly the glittering third variation:
Bach's cousin Johann Gottfried Walther (1684-1748) is represnted by another piece on a chorale, his Partita, "Lobt Gott, ihr Christen, allzugleich," a set of seven chorale variations. Along with names such as Georg Böhm, Johann Krieger, Johann Bernhard Bach and Bittstedt, Walther significantly contributed to this genre
The move to more Gallic waters comes with a Noël by Alexandre Guilmant (1837-1911, not 1937-199 as the booklet claims!): Introduction et Variations sur un Ancien Noël Polonais (Introduction and Variations on an ancient Polish Noël), which has a light touch echoed, later in the programme, by Daquin's delightful "Noel Suisse". Here's the Guilmant:
There is much beauty here, from Owens' own Prelude on Yorkshire to Gary Davison's Seven Versets on Divinum Mysterium which, along with Howard Skempton's Christmas Bells, was written expressly for this disc. Here's the ravishing, silvery third Verset of the Davison:
This is not a compilation of Christmas favourites; it is a well-planned recital that includes much that is new or lesser-known, Whiech makes it even more lovely to hear "In dulci jubilo," of course (in Liszt's version from Weihnachtsbaum - Christmas Tree - S186, "Die Hirten an der Krippe" - the shepherds at the crib) and this gorgeous Chroale Prelude on "Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How brightly beams the morning star) by Flor Peeters (1903-86):
Howard Skempton's Christmas Bells is ethereal invocation of overlapping bell harmonics achieved with a minimuj of means. Simply magical, before the virtuoso "Toccata on Vom Himmel hoch" from Christus Advenit by Garth Edmundson closes teh disc in rousing fashion. This last offers real testament to Matthew Owens' virtuosity, while thesound is simply fabulous, the organ pedals reproduced with stunning presence.
I think I want to round off, though, with Philip Moore's resplendent A Fugal Flourish on "Personent Hodie", which seems to sum up the spirit of the disc so well. The piece rises to a ringing climax via ingenious means, with Moore revelling in the contrapuntal explosion: