Contemporary British Organ Music Volumes 1 & 2 (CD)

The discs are released on the sfzmusic label.

THE ORGAN – Winter 2011 issue 355

Volume 1 *****

Volume 2 *****

These releases are exemplary for at least two reasons: they demonstrate the variety and depth of inspiration among contemporary British composers, and Bonaventure gives all the music the sort of dedicated and lively interpretation they deserve. An attractive feature about the music is that it all sounds modern and up to date, but never dissonant and rebarbative on the one hand or derivative and anonymous on the other. Some of the items, especially Crane’s Three Pieces and Anderson’s Repetitive Strain might be deemed to be minimalist in style, but that would miss the point of the essentially melodious character that is built up around slow moving chords (or just one chord in the case of Favourite Chord), or as in Jackson’s St Asaph Toccata, is woven through the repetitive, bouncing arpeggios that obviously relates to the famous toccatas of Widor and Vierne. Repetitive Strain and Southwark Symphonies for instance are only periodically minimalist in that they build up a series of highly contrasted episodes, designed as a vehicle to exploit the different colours and textures of the organ to the utmost. Bonaventure always has a keen sense for these quick successions of changes in timbre and registration, and where the momentum of a long piece such as Jackson’s Comeragh Litanies or Sutton-Anderson’s encircling, unfolding could so easily break down, Bonaventure is able to maintain control over the whole span. This is particularly important and a notable feature of his ability in rapt, slow pieces such as Sutton-Anderson’s Unda Maris or 44 Frames from his Three Pieces in which, as in some of Messiaen’s organ music, time seems to be suspended, but execution of the music shouldn’t become dynamically static.

Bonaventure plays the organ of St John’s Upper Norwood, originally built in 1881 by Thomas Christopher Lewis and restored in 1998 by Harrison & Harrison. As the sleeve notes say, “the consequence of Lewis’ genius as a voicer and Pearson’s (the architect of the church) acoustic ambience gives rise to an organ stunning in its impact and splendour”, and it must be noted, versatile enough to do justice to the tonal variety of the music played. The acoustic ambience is perhaps best demonstrated in Jackson’s Aquarius with Quartz and Copper, which is actually a duet with trumpet, the timbres of the two instruments by turns complementing and contrasting with each other; at the other end of the spectrum the almost pointilliste precision of the quiet reedy tones of Anderson’s The Grass is Sleeping can also only be effectively realized in such a bright and open acoustic. Both CDs can be unhesitatingly recommended to all those interested in contemporary music.

Curtis Rogers


The music on these two discs is very much of the contemporary mainstream: there is nothing populist about it, though there is much variety. Clearly, for the composers of these works, the organ is an exciting medium, full of potential; neither a fossil on which only old music can be played, nor an instrument limited to liturgical use or accompaniment. The imaginative titles attached to various pieces by all four composers hint at the evocative sound-worlds that await the open-minded listener.

Gabriel Jackson’s compositions have melodies that draw you in, but take you where you do not always expect to go. Varied textures are juxtaposed to striking effect and radiant timbres, created not only by imaginative registrations but also by distinctive chord voicing, make the music seem to glow.

Laurence Crane’s pieces are fascinatingly sparse and all were originally composed for other instruments. Old Life Was Rubbish began life as a composition for early wind instruments. It was subsequently adapted for saxophone quartet (the point at which it acquired its current title), and eventually transformed into a flexible piece that may be performed in different ways, following a few rules – hence the three versions on the disc. It consists of just two chords and is hypnotic in effect. Sparling was originally for clarinet and piano, Michael Bonaventure being the catalyst whereby the piece was arranged for organ, while Favourite Chord was originally composed for accordion and Swim for electric organ. Highly economical in the material that they use, they need to be listened to patiently and meditatively.

The music on the second disc is more “hard-edged” than that on the first. The title of Avril Anderson’s Repetitive Strain refers to “strains” of melody in the pedals and gradually changing ostinati and chords, rather than to the medical condition, though one suspects that the double meaning was not unintentional. The piece was first performed in St Paul’s Cathedral and offers enormous opportunities for the exploration of tone colour: opportunities that Michael Bonaventure seizes with relish. Among the more gentle works are David Sutton-Anderson’s Meditation and Prière. They are very beautiful. Happy Birthday Mr Lambert (a co-production), while incorporating fragments from the song, is more intense than one might expect a birthday tribute to be, even when an Aldeburgh Festival commission.

Michael Bonaventure’s palpable commitment to the music is a strong feature of these discs, and his choice of the noble Lewis organ of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, is a shrewd one because it is neither too hard-edged nor too woolly. The instrument possesses a broad spectrum of timbres and the acoustic is generous enough to give warmth, but dry enough for the music never to be unclear.

Most listeners will not find these discs especially easy listening or particularly suitable background music when driving or doing the washing up. This is music that requires you to sit down, concentrate, and let yourself be transported. There is nevertheless much that is immediately attractive and Gabriel Jackson’s pieces may be found a good place to start. These are the kind of discs that might make you listen to organ music from a new perspective...

Christopher Maxim