This new 3-CD set from Resonus includes the previously released Volumes 1 and 2 of Kenneth Leighton’s Complete Organ Works. To this has been added a final Volume 3, which I understand has not been issued separately. I have previously reviewed Volume 1 for MusicWeb International, so will not repeat myself in these comments. I was unable to find any appraisal of Volume 2 listed on MWI.
The second CD gets off to a great start. The ‘Festival Fanfare’ was composed for the 1968 West Riding Cathedrals Festival held at Sheffield. The event included the ‘massed choirs’ of Sheffield, Bradford and Wakefield Cathedrals and was held during 1 and 2 November. Interestingly, the splendid cathedral of Ripon was in the West Riding at that time, before the reckless county boundary changes of 1974: I wonder why they were not invited?
The ‘Fanfare’ was personally requested by Sheffield organist Graham Matthews. It lasts for about six minutes and is in Leighton’s usual jubilant, flamboyant, dance-inspired style, ideal for ceremonial music. Making use of limited musical material it is well-structured, and technically challenging. ‘Festival Fanfare’ was premiered by Matthews (other sources suggest it was Percy Saunders) at the Festival Evensong and again at a concert, both in Sheffield Cathedral.
Kenneth Leighton insisted that ‘Et Resurrexit’ (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue) op.49 is ‘…purely abstract in design, [however] the work attempts to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the resurrection…’ The massive canvas is developed from a minimum of musical material. Despite the work’s formal division into three movements, it is easier to understand as a kind of continuous variation or constant transformation. The mood of the work is changeable, balancing emotions that are deeply felt, moving and often euphoric. It places considerable technical demands on the organist, especially in using the colours available through registration, as well as simply playing the notes. It is dedicated to Robert Munns who gave the premiere on 16 November on the organ of Brompton Parish Church, London.
‘These are Thy Wonders (A Song of Renewal)’, op.84 was commissioned by the tenor Neil Mackie to celebrate the 70th birthday of Peter Pears in 1980. It is a setting of the poem ‘The Flower’ by George Herbert. I am never quite sure how well solo ‘song’ works with an organ. In this case, I guess Leighton has created a through-composed work of considerable lyricism and ‘luminosity’ which gives an effective balance to voice and instrument. It is brilliantly sung on this CD by Nicky Spence. The work was first performed in the beautiful St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney on 21 June 1981. This was 364 days after Pears’ actual 70th birthday.
The short ‘Veni Creator Spiritus’ was written the year before the composer died. It was commissioned for the Dunfermline Abbey Festival of 1987 and was first performed there on 21 June by the Abbey organist, Andrew Armstrong. Although this finely-wrought work is entitled a ‘prelude’ it is really a meditation on the ancient plainsong tune for Whitsunday. The music follows the text in a restrained manner, gently acknowledging references to the ‘living fire’, God’s promise to instruct his flock, the perils for which we need God’s protection and the security of His divine love.
I remember buying a copy of the sheet music of Leighton’s ‘Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia’, op.41 in Biggar’s music shop in Glasgow around 1975. It was issued in the buff coloured Novello International Series of Contemporary Organ Music edition. It just appealed to me. I never could play it, and never will play it, but it seemed like a good investment: I still have it in my music library. The work was commissioned by Bryan Hesford of Brecon Cathedral, and was first performed by him in Norwich Cathedral on 24 October 1963.
Lasting for more than 20 minutes it is based on the development of a simple melodic motif which is expressed in the opening bars of the Prelude. The Scherzo is essentially a baroque gigue that juxtaposes edgy music with something that is inherently playful. The Passacaglia, which is based on a 12-note theme creates a much darker and more intense mood than the preceding scherzo. The theme is used, twisted and then turned back on itself. The entire work is a clever balance of largely traditional contrapuntal devices but also utilises a more contemporary harmonic language. The overall impression is of a work of consummate skill, written by a composer who fully understands all the possibilities of the medium. It is hard to believe that this was his first major work for the genre. I agree with Arthur Milner (Musical Opinion, October 1964) that this is ‘the finest composition for organ by an English composer of the last thirty years.’ For me, it is Leighton’s organ masterwork.
The third disc opens with Kenneth Leighton’s most ‘popular’ organ work ‘Paean’ (1966) with five recordings currently listed in the Arkiv catalogue, and many more in the lists of deleted LPs, cassettes and CDs. It is a justifiably popular piece that is full of rhythmic energy, extrovert gestures and surprising lyricism. It celebrates perfectly the thanksgiving (and possibly triumph) suggested by the title. It was commissioned by Oxford University Press (OUP) for the second volume of their successful Modern Organ Music series (Red Cover). The first performance was given at the Royal Festival Hall on 25 January 1967 by Simon Preston. This was part of a celebration of 40 years of the Organ Club.
OUP’s competitors Novello commissioned the ‘Elegy’ as one of the numbers included in their Music Before Service album, issued in 1965. This was the second of Leighton’s organ pieces and was completed in April 1965. This work is composed in an ‘arch’ form, beginning and ending quietly, with a considerable climax in the middle. Although the ‘Elegy’ is approachable and completely satisfying, it is hardly the sort of piece one expects to hear at St Swithuns-on-Irwell on a Sunday morning before 1662 Prayer Book Matins.
The short Ode was yet another commission for an album of organ music: A Second Album of Preludes and Interludes-Six Pieces by Contemporary British Composers published by OUP in 1979. The music is an exercise in the building up of tension and increasing dynamics on a very limited canvas. The work ends, conventionally, with a powerful C major chord.
If I am honest, Fantasy on a Chorale (Es ist genug), op.80 (1979) just does not do it for me. I feel the combination of violin and organ is not judicious. It is the only piece where the composer has attempted this instrumentation. The chorale appeared in Bach’s cantata ‘O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort,’ BWV 60. Enthusiasts of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto will recall the composer’s use of the tune in his celebrated Violin Concerto.
The Fantasy is written in a single continuous movement, albeit divided into five sections. I find that it is typically uninspiring from the first note to the last. At 26 minutes in duration it seems just a wee bit too long. I am sure that other listeners will heartily disagree with me. One feels guilty in not enjoying or appreciating this piece, as it was written ‘in memoriam’ for Leighton’s father. The Fantasy was commissioned by the American violinist Jean Harmon and was first performed in the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC on 4 May 1980.
The short chorale prelude ‘Rockingham’ is a beautiful, restrained sicilaino-like meditation on the well-loved hymn tune used with the words ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross’. It first appeared in the collection Chorale Preludes on English Tunes published by OUP c.1977.
The relatively ‘easy to play’ Fanfare was included in Volume 1 of OUPs Easy Modern Organ Music published in 1967. Peter Hardwick in his British Organ Music (2003) suggests that the work has ‘an engaging pervasive brightness and rhythmic forward thrust’ which is achieved by the ‘symmetrical phrases that begin on weak beats.’ It is certainly a good place for aspiring organists to begin their study of Kenneth Leighton’s organ music.
‘Veni Redemptor’ (A Celebration), op.93 is based on the eponymous chant published in the Sarum Antiphoner. The piece was written for the North Wales International Music Festival at St. Asaph in 1985, and was first heard there on 20 September of that year. It was performed by the dedicatee John Scott (1956-2015). The composer’s own words sum up the powerful effect of this music: ‘[It is] a celebration of Christmas which gives expression to awe and majesty as well as to joy and brightness.’ From its quiet opening, followed by a skittish section, then building up to a glorious peroration, this is a perfectly constructed piece of organ music.
The final work on this third CD, ‘De Profundis’, op.76, is not for organ: it is the only piece that Kenneth Leighton composed for the harpsichord. It was written during August 1977, and had its premiere on 7 June 1978 in that great repository of keyboard instruments, the St Cecilia’s Hall in Edinburgh. The composer was the soloist.
Leighton has described the work as ‘…a set of constant variations…it tries to use for the most part the lyrical and contrapuntal potentialities of the harpsichord…’ The liner notes suggest that ‘De Profundis’ was composed at a time of unhappiness for Leighton. This mood permeates much of the work, yet the vibrant rhythms of some of the faster sections seem to be positive, whilst the darker moments certainly suggest sadness. I must admit that I found the piece a little hard going: it is not my favourite work by the composer. On the other hand, it is good that it has been given this splendid recording.
The work was crafted to be played on a historic instrument. In the present recording, Stephen Farr uses a Pascal Taskin instrument built in 1769, which is now housed in the St Cecilia’s Hall. This was presumably loaned to St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge from St Cecilia’s Hall (see recording details) for this performance.
The liner notes, written by Adam Binks, who is currently writing the first biography of Kenneth Leighton, are near-dissertation length, and give a splendid overview of the composer and his organ music. Each piece is discussed in some detail. Biographical information is given about the performers. Organ specifications are included for all three instruments: the 1992 Rieger Organ at St Giles Cathedral, the Klais Organ at the Symphony Hall, Birmingham and the Henry Willis instrument in St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London. The text of ‘These are thy wonders’ by George Herbert is printed in full.
The performance of all this music is ideal. I thoroughly enjoyed most pieces (see above for caveats) and felt that Stephen Farr, John Butt, Chloë Hanslip (violin) and Nick Spence (tenor) have done a splendid job in performing this important repertoire. Clearly, the lion’s share of these three CDs has fallen to Stephen Farr. It is a stunning achievement. The sound quality of the recording is perfect: it makes the listener feel they are present at the venues. No better compliment can be paid.
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Festival Fanfare (1968)
Et Resurrexit (Theme, Fantasy and Fugue) op.49 (1966)
These are Thy Wonders (A Song of Renewal), op.84 (1981)
Veni Creator Spiritus (1987)
Prelude, Scherzo and Passacaglia, op.41 (1963)
Nicky Spence (tenor, These are Thy Wonders), Stephen Farr (organ)
Rec. The Klais Organ of Symphony Hall, Birmingham 27-28 August 2014
Fantasy on a Choral (Es ist genug) for violin and organ, op.80 (1979) [26:03]
Veni Redemptor (A Celebration) op.93 (1985)
Improvisations ‘De Profundis’, op.76 (1977)
Rec. St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh on 20 April 2016, The Henry Willis Organ of St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, (Fantasy) on 1 October 2015, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge 18 June 2016 (Improvisations)
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.