Notes and Editorial Reviews
This CD offers a survey of British organ music in the 17th and 18th centuries. The reflections that follow may be too musicological for some readers so if you’re a novice and wondering if you’re interested, just read the paragraph immediately below.
This collection draws on an important if not very large repertoire. The earlier composers built on the inheritance of Elizabethan/Jacobean fantasy. Their severe counterpoint requires concentrated listening, but is worth the effort. As Blow and Croft moved towards the baroque – though the pieces here are not among their more forwardly-looking ones – the music became simpler, more melodic. What the Handel followers – Stanley, Boyce and Walond – lost in depth, they gained in sheer
attractiveness. The music is heard here on a suitably scaled organ, well recorded in a clear but not dry acoustic. It is played with good style and musicianship. As I suggest later, some performers have brought more flair to the task. Nevertheless, you can go ahead with reasonable confidence.
Though the programme is arranged more or less chronologically Costin has elected – maybe in the interests of listener-friendliness – to help the earlier, more intellectual section along with two highly famous and popular pieces of Purcell-that-isn’t, the charming miniatures by Jeremiah Clarke. Few people will need telling that the first of these is the “Trumpet Voluntary”. Less widely-known, because it came to light more recently, is the fact that the “other” favourite Purcell trumpet melody is by Clarke too – from the semi-opera “The Island Princess” in which Clarke collaborated with Purcell’s brother Daniel.
It seems a little disingenuous, however, to say, as Costin does in his generally excellent notes, that these two pieces “are amongst the most popular organ works of the period”. Surely Costin must know that they are not organ works at all? “The Prince of Denmark’s March” was written for the harpsichord, the “Trumpet Tune” for instrumental ensemble, though the version usually played is again for harpsichord. This is not to say that they are ineffective on the organ, but an 18th century organist would hardly have thought them suitable as voluntaries for church performance. Not because composers of the time were opposed to lively tunes in an ecclesiastical setting – listen to their trumpet and cornet voluntaries – but because the idea of sending the congregation away to the strains of a sturdy march just wasn’t on their agenda. I’ve never seen such a piece prior to the mid-Victorian age and I suspect it was the popularity of Mendelssohn’s “War March of the Priests”, transcribed for organ, that “legitimized” the march as an outgoing voluntary and spawned a myriad imitations. I wonder, too, if the sort of listeners who would most enjoy Clarke’s agreeable trifles would not lose their way among the intricacies of the more extended and substantial works of Gibbons, Blow or the real Purcell, though they should enjoy the lively inventions by Handel followers Stanley, Boyce and Walond.
Listener-friendliness also induced, presumably, the concluding Handel arrangement. Costin tells us that this overture “became one of the most frequently published transcriptions from Handel’s oratorios”, but it would be nice to know which transcription he is using. Moreover, while Handel was notoriously unenthusiastic about the organ as a solo instrument, he did publish a set of voluntaries in the English style, so maybe one of these fairly rare works would have been a more logical choice. However, the “Samson” piece inspires Costin to play with a flair that is sometimes lacking elsewhere from his accurate, careful, stylish but sometimes slightly cautious performances. The Vivace section of the Boyce, for example, has more dash on an old Archiv LP by Simon Preston. I can imagine zippier performances of the faster sections of the Walond and the Stanley G minor, too. Preston is also more mobile in the Purcell G major Voluntary.
There have been various records of this kind over the years. The one I mentioned by Simon Preston (LP Archiv 415 675-1) began a little further back with Byrd and Tomkins and ventured ahead to Samuel Wesley. Since the 17th century composers offer much fine invention and the Handel-inspired ones are uniformly attractive, collectors who have a few such discs may be wondering whether it isn’t time for something a little more systematic. The repertoire itself is not large, after all. The same number of discs that would be needed to encompass all the organ music by just one continental figure such as Frescobaldi would probably be in excess of those needed to carry the complete surviving organ works of all the composers in this anthology. Most of them left too little even to fill an entire disc by themselves and only Blow and Stanley wrote enough to spill onto a second CD. The four works played here by Purcell, for example, are very nearly his Opera Omnia for organ – lacking are only a brief Verse in F, which might have been slipped in, and the “Voluntary on the Old Hundredth” which may be by Purcell, or by Blow, or – most likely of all it seems – by neither, but is nevertheless attractive and effective.
Considering how small the repertoire is, it struck me as remarkable how much scope for confusion there is over labelling, especially when the present disc gives minimal information – I’ve added a little to the header here and there. Rustling up scores and hunting for alternative recordings revealed that these pieces go under a variety of names. Likewise, a variety of pieces go under the same name. To have added “Parthenia XVII” after the O. Gibbons “Fantasia of Four Parts”, for example, would have wasted little ink or paper and would have helped clarify what we are going to hear. Similarly, the Stanley G minor gets its opus number but the D major doesn’t, and isn’t in D major anyway, the outer movements being in D minor. The Blow “Voluntary in C major” led me on a particularly wild goose chase since the piece in question is called a “Verse” in the only source that gives it a title at all. Conversely, at least two other pieces in C major by Blow really were called Voluntaries in at least one source. Nor is “Cornet Voluntary in G” very helpful for the Walond piece when Walond’s third set of Voluntaries – the one published by Hinrichsen – contains two such voluntaries in G. And, what’s more, Gordon Phillips, in his introduction to the Hinrichsen edition, points out that no registration is given in the original edition of the piece played here, so this is only hypothetically a “Cornet Voluntary” at all, though it is certainly effective and convincing on the cornet stop.
On the subject of editions, too, it would be nice to know which are being used. The disc has forcibly brought home to me the fact that several editions that seemed the latest thing when I bought them a quarter of a century ago have been superseded. Compared with the edition by Howard Ferguson, “The Prince of Denmark’s March” reverts in several places here to the shape the melody used to have when we thought it was the “Purcell Trumpet Voluntary”, so it would be interesting to know what sources there are apart from “The Harpsichord Master” which Ferguson followed. The Blow C major piece has an extra movement which Watkins Shaw rejected in his edition since the source that includes it gives the music anonymously. But the preferred edition of Blow nowadays, if you’ve got seventy-odd pounds to spend, is the Stainer & Bell/Musica Britannica one by Barry Cooper. Presumably Costin is using this. No doubt Cooper explains there his reasons for accepting the extra movement into the canon. There are rhythmic changes to the middle movement of the Stanley Voluntary in D – this trumpet tune is probably Stanley’s best-known single movement – compared with the Hinrichsen edition edited by Gordon Phillips, who was usually rather pernickety about getting things right. There’s also an edition for free download at the IMSLP-Petrucci site which is identical to Phillips at this point. Further, the tempo given by Phillips and others is “Andante vivace”, not just “Vivace” as printed in the CD booklet. To judge from the way Costin jollies it along he may be unaware of the “Andante” qualification.
However, I am straying into general points about the repertoire rather than these performances of it. Non-specialists who are still with me can be assured, as I said at the beginning, of well-prepared, idiomatic performances. Organ fanciers wishing to sample the Pembroke instrument will find it well displayed both by the performer and by the sound engineers. Collectors of British organ music of this period are no doubt resigned to buying as many similar anthologies as are issued in the hope – probably vain – that they will gradually accumulate a complete collection of the repertoire between one disc or another. More likely, though, they will pile up multiple recordings of the Boyce in D. People who collect recordings of the “Purcell Trumpet Voluntary” – better that than the “Albinoni Adagio” among misattributed baroque pops – will welcome the latest arrival.
-- Christopher Howell, MusicWeb International Read less
Works on This Recording
Fantasia à 4 by Orlando Gibbons
Robert Costin (Organ)
Written: 17th Century; England
Voluntary in C major by John Blow
Robert Costin (Organ)
Written: 17th Century; England
Samson, HWV 57: Overture by George Frideric Handel
Robert Costin (Organ)
Written: by 1743; London, England
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