Gothic Toccata

Peter Jewkes
The Sydney Organ Journal (Australia)

The publicity material with this review copy makes a number of quite grandiose claims, all of which seem beyond dispute, for example: that it is the first major recording of Australian organ works on an iconic Australian instrument, that Dr Bowman knows the organ intimately, having performed the Philip Glass Concerto on it at its post-rebuilding opening in 2001, in the presence of the composer and that several premiere recordings are being included on the disc, for example, significant works by Brumby, Hill and Edwards.

The claims don’t stop there, but it will give you the general idea. It is without doubt a very important disc, and Calvin Bowman now joins the elite ranks of others such as Robert Boughen and Robert Ampt who have championed and recorded organ works by our native composers.

Some of the works will be immediately recognised by many listeners, others will be new, and some quite challenging. For some reason the first nine pieces are by living writers, with the last five by those now no longer with us, and I’m not exactly sure that their safe pastures (as pleasant as they are) sit exactly comfortably with the rocky harmonic and rhythmic terrain which precedes them. Highly subjectively, I think I’d personally have preferred to have had the pieces in chronological order, or even interspersed, not in two such distinctive “lumps”. Also subjectively, I can never understand why George Thalben-Ball’s second and better-known Elegy attracts so much attention (this being at least its second recording at the Melbourne Town Hall) at the expense of his earlier and very fine Elegy (of 1918, in memory of Parry).

This is nit-picking however, and both “lumps” have surprises, delights, and even in the case of Alfred Hill, some laughter as the percussion department makes an appearance. The playing is consistently excellent, and exploits the kaleidoscopic qualities of what is presumably now Australia’s largest Town Hall organ. The instrument itself is in good voice – though (and here comes a hobby horse issue) it would be nice to see a credit somewhere in the liner notes for the tuning and preparation presumably carried out by a stalwart of Australian Pipe Organs, in whose care it abides.This then brings us tangentially to the accompanying booklet which seems to strike just the right balance in amount of material and detail – neither as scant as some I have seen lately, nor going to the verbose extremes of others (some recent notable American examples containing what could only be described as a paperback book!). The recording and production team have done a fine job with the sound, which seems to my ears to capture very well the sound of the organ as it now presents itself in the hall. Acknowledgement is made of assistance from the Australian Council and the Melba Foundation.

All in all, the impressive claims made about this CD are by no means hyperbole. It should be on the shelves of anyone interested in the local organ “scene”, and shouldn’t that be all of us?