22 February 2016

CD REVIEW: A. Hollins, H. Howells, E. MacMillan, R. Manari, F. Morel, C. Saint-Saëns, L. Vierne, P. Whitlock, H. Willan — MUSIC FOR ORGAN (David Baskeyfield, organ; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719)

IN REVIEW: MUSIC FOR ORGAN (David Baskeyfield, organ; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719)ALFRED HOLLINS (1865 – 1942), HERBERT HOWELLS (1892 – 1983), SIR ERNEST MACMILLAN (1893 – 1973), RAFFAELE MANARI (1887 – 1933), FRANÇOIS MOREL (born 1926), CAMILLE SAINT-SAËNS (1835 – 1921), LOUIS VIERNE (1870 – 1927), PERCY WHITLOCK (1903 – 1946), and HEALEY WILLAN (1880 – 1968): Music for OrganDavid Baskeyfield, organ [Recorded in St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 19 – 21 May 2015; ATMA Classique ACD2 2719; 1 CD, 80:07; Available from ATMA Classique, ClassicsOnlineHD (Download | Streaming), Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

Whether a teeming metropolis or a sleepy crossroads, a community is defined in part by its musical footprint. By harnessing the powers of music to unite and uplift, locales as diverse as muddy fields in the Catskills and the ancient Terme di Caracalla have altered both musical and human histories, witnessing phenomena that transcended the simple acts of producing sounds. In generations past, academic, civic, and ecclesiastical communities often rightly venerated the organists who served them as . In German-speaking Europe, the names of Heinrich Schütz, Dieterich Buxtehude, Johann Jakob Froberger, and Johann Pachelbel became virtually synonymous with those of the towns in which they were master organists, and Pachelbel's son Karl Theodor perpetuated that association in the New World when he became organist at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Even Johann Sebastian Bach was primarily celebrated as an organist rather than as a composer by many of his contemporaries and his own children. Disrupting the French traditions of organ playing and composition shaped by César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Charles-Marie Widor, the death of Jehan Alain was one of the foremost musical tragedies of World War II. In North America, the contrasting styles of E. Power Biggs and Virgil Fox lent the organ greater interest and prominence than it might otherwise have enjoyed in the increasingly frenetic Twentieth Century.

Becoming an institution’s designated organist no longer depends as it sometimes did in Bach's time upon meeting conditions like marrying a predecessor's daughter, but the emergence of a new organist in the exalted tradition of Buxtehude, Bach, Franck, and Widor remains an important milestone in the global musical community. Completed in 1914, the Casavant Frères Opus 550 organ in the imposing Anglican church of St. Paul’s, Bloor Street, in Toronto is a magnificent instrument, its 106 stops, 137 ranks, and four-manual console rivaling in quality the organs that Bach played in Arnstadt and Weimar and the famous organ in Stift Sankt Florian so loved by Anton Bruckner. Moreover, the sonically grandiloquent St. Paul’s instrument, which celebrated its centennial—sadly not honored with a much-deserved restoration—with the planning and release of this disc, is likely the fifth largest organ of its kind in the world, an astounding achievement of musical craftsmanship. A young musician at the start of what promises to be a career to recall those of Twentieth-Century titans of the instrument like Biggs, Fox, and Marie-Claire Alain might dream of introducing his work to the public at the command of such an organ, and British-born organist David Baskeyfield, winner of the 2014 Canadian International Organ Competition, provides with this ATMA Classique disc, masterfully engineered and edited by Carlos Prieto with aural clarity that honors the enormity of the instrument’s sound without sacrificing the intimacy of some of the music, an introduction wholly worthy of his substantial talent.

Currently serving as Director of Music at Christ Episcopal Church in Pittsford, New York, near his alma mater, the prestigious Eastman School of Music, Baskeyfield was an organ scholar at St. John’s College, Oxford, simultaneously reading law during his tenure there, and at Dublin’s Christ Church and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals. In addition to his victory in the Canadian International Organ Competition, 2014 also witnessed the awarding of his Doctor of Musical Arts degree from the Eastman School. Highly-educated musicians are now nearly as prevalent as poorly-trained ones, but Baskeyfield is clearly an artist whose gifts warrant the plaudits he has received to date. In the performances on this disc, he discloses an affinity for drawing out the inner voices of both the instrument at his disposal and the music before him by making full use of the organ’s timbres. This quality is vital in all of the selections on the disc, and its significance is established immediately in Baskeyfield’s playing of the opening selection, Canadian composer and organist Sir Ernest MacMillan’s 1953 Cortège académique. The young organist’s performance of the piece succeeds in sounding anything but academic, the sentimental scope of the music receiving an exceptionally penetrating examination. Depth of feeling also characterizes Baskeyfield’s playing of Québécois composer François Morel’s 1954 Prière, a piece that benefits from the unaffected lyricism with which it is handled here. Both Herbert Howells’s 1918 Rhapsody No. 2 in E♭ major (Op. 17, No. 2) and Alfred Hollins’s 1917 Scherzo are products of the demoralizing era of the Great War, but they could hardly be more different, musically and emotionally. Howells’s work in general is colored by an ineradicable melancholy, and the Rhapsody, though a youthful work in a major key composed less than a decade after his auspicious first meeting with Ralph Vaughan Williams, exhibits suggestions of the composer’s mature idiom. Baskeyfield is careful to play the Rhapsody on its own terms, however, avoiding even the slightest hint of anachronistic bleakness by viewing the piece from the perspective of Howells’s 1932 Requiem and his powerful Hymnus Paradisi. By contrast, the prevailing mood of Hollins’s Scherzo is, as its title suggests, far lighter, but Baskeyfield’s playing is no less expert at conveying the irrepressible good humor of this work of a musician who managed to impress as prickly a critic as Queen Victoria.

The five movements of Percy Whitlock’s Plymouth Suite are individually and collectively tests of the player’s capacity for nuanced interpretation of musical subtleties. Baskeyfield unleashes an athletic robustness in the Allegro risoluto first movement, followed by a restrained, almost mysterious atmosphere in Lantana. The lilting Chanty has a rollicking, rustic charm in Baskeyfield’s performance, and his faculty for emphasizing the consequence of specific notes, especially in resolving cadences, without negatively impacting the integrity of broader phrases is inestimably valuable in Whitlock’s music. The sonic landscapes of Salix and Toccata are evoked with undaunted musicality, the capabilities of the organ mined for every nugget of sparkling interpretive depth. Inspired by mythological accounts of water nymphs, Louis Vierne’s Naïades (Pièces de fantaisie pour orgue, Op. 55, No. 4) wields an ethereal allure not unlike the music for the trio of nymphs in Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and Baskeyfield phrases Vierne’s impressionistic lines with grace and delicacy to which ladies who sing Strauss’s Naiad, Dryad, and Echo should aspire.

Beyond the milieux of organists and listeners who love music for the instrument, Camille Saint-Saëns is likely the most widely-known of the composers represented on this disc, but, aside from his famous Symphony No. 3 in C minor that prominently features organ, his works for the instrument of which he was the revered master at the Madeleine for nearly twenty years are not as familiar to many listeners as his orchestral music and the opera Samson et Dalila. His Prélude et Fugue in G major (Op. 109, No. 2) was dedicated to fellow composer and organist Albert Périlhou, an homage from the man proclaimed by Franz Liszt to be the best organist in the world to a respected colleague. The second of the three similarly-conceived pieces that constitute Saint-Saëns’s Opus 109, the G-major Prélude et Fugue is a work in which the wit of the creator of Le carnaval des animaux is apparent, and Baskeyfield’s traversal of the music insightfully explores its ceremony and its cleverness. Italian organ pedagogue Raffaele Manari in many ways occupies the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from Saint-Saëns, his sporadic compositions inhabiting an environment of liturgical austerity. Nevertheless, his Studio da concerto “Salve Regina” is a bold work, and Baskeyfield delivers it with virtuosity that encompasses simplicity and complexity equally, his approach lending the piece the effect of plainchant resounding in an ornate cathedral.

Born in London but resident during much of his career in Toronto, Healey Willan was organist at St. Paul's, Bloor Street, in which he capacity he was among the first organists to play the instrument heard on this disc. Composed in 1916, three years after his immigration to Canada, Willan’s Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue possesses fanfare sufficient to inaugurate a majestic instrument and the career of its custodian. It is natural that composers who were themselves renowned organists should write for the instrument with special skill, but Baskeyfield’s performance of Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue makes the music sound as though Willan composed it exclusively for him. The youthful energy with which Baskeyfield negotiates the transitions is complemented by expressive maturity which, frankly, many musicians with considerably more years to their credit do not exhibit. In particular, the perspicuity with which Baskeyfield articulates individual voices in Willan’s contrapuntal writing marks his playing as the work of a commendably intuitive musical mind.

An organist’s technique can be difficult to assess based solely upon audio recordings, but bad playing asserts itself to the ears of even the most casual of listeners. Like the large voices that have become an endangered commodity in opera due to inept training and misuse, potentially brilliant organists now often grapple with indifference and ignorance in pursuit of the nurturing and support that their development requires. With his playing on this disc, dedicated to captivating repertory overlooked by many, less-adventurous organists and record labels, David Baskeyfield announces his prominence among the superior organists of the still-nascent Twenty-First Century. In the case of this young artist, jurisprudence’s loss is emphatically music’s gain.