Gothic Toccata

Marc Rochester
MusicWeb International (UK)

Think “Gothic Toccata” and chances are the name of Leon Boëllmann will instantly spring to mind; after all the Toccata which concludes his Gothic Suite is about the best-known of all organ toccatas. But there is no Boëllmann here nor, indeed, anything remotely French. And when we look down the playlist and see George Thalben-Ball’s Elegy, we might be forgiven for thinking something has gone amiss ‘twixt recording and presentation. What we do have here is a broad spectrum of music written over the last 100 years by composers with an Australian connection played with great vivacity and aplomb by Calvin Bowman on the massive organ of Melbourne Town Hall.
We’ll come to the “Gothic” later, but the programme opens with a truly glittering, spectacular Epithalamium by Richard Mills. There is nothing remotely gothic about this toccata, but it makes for a dazzling opener, especially given the tremendously agile finger work of Bowman and the razor-sharp sound of this mighty organ. Andrew Schultz’s three-part Etudes-Espace is rather more esoteric, lumping together lots of clusters and aggressive sounding parallel dissonances like Kenneth Leighton in a singularly bad mood. The booklet includes brief (and not always insightful) notes on their pieces by the composers, and Schultz tells us this is a result of his thoughts over “resonance and decay”.
The “Gothic Toccata” of the disc’s title is by Graeme Koehne and was written in 1983 for the 10th anniversary of the Sydney Opera House organ. It is bustling, busy and brim full of nervous energy, and takes its “Gothic” appellation from Ruskin’s description of the term as Savage, Love of Change, Love of Nature, Disturbed Imagination, Obstinacy and Generosity. There is so much going on here that you can detect all of that (and a whole lot more) in a work which is as jaw-droppingly athletic as the most ardent organ-thrill-seeker could wish for. It comes complete with cascading glissandi and thunderous concluding chords, putting both instrument and player through their paces; and from which they both emerge triumphant. It is worth noting that while this is described as the work’s World Premiere Recording, David Drury subsequently recorded it on the Sydney Town Hall organ for ABC Classics – it deserves a lot more recordings, although it requires from any player virtuosity by the shovel-load. I am less taken by Koehne’s rather dreary homage to Bach.
Ross Edwards tells us that the two pieces here dedicated to Bowman are intended to “make [the organ] dance”. That being the case, the dancers involved in Dawn Canticle remain soundly asleep through this long, ponderous, but highly atmospheric piece apparently inspired by the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House. They get up and go with a vengeance for Organmaninya, the incisive and irregular rhythms of which are impeccably delivered by Bowman, whose articulation has a gloriously crystalline quality and is superbly captured in this vivid DSD recording. Colin Brumby’s explanation of Assemblages is possibly as obscure and impenetrable as the piece itself, but from a purely aural perspective, this does take us around some of the more interesting byways of this astonishing 246-stop organistic monster.
The remainder of the programme looks back to music written in the first half of the 20th century. Sydney-native George Thalben-Ball is represented by his famous Elegy, expounded gracefully here on (I imagine) the Solo organ’s Violoncello stop, while more convincing sounding orchestral stops (among them side drum, bass drum, and glockenspiel) put in an appearance in the delightful little central episode of Alfred Hill’s charming Valse Triste. Others will put me right on this, but off the top of my head I can’t think of an original organ work based on Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad, but here we have an organ transcription made by Bowman himself of Phyllis Batchelor’s enchanting, pastoral-infused When I was one-and-twenty, with its flowing melody warmly given out on a rich-toned 4-foot pedal diapason.
Not many years after Thalben-Ball made the journey from Australia to the UK, Londoner Fritz Hart went the other way, settled in Melbourne, and became a noted teacher. He is represented on this disc with a long, eventful Fantasia full of dramatic flair (Hart was well known in his day as an opera composer) and firmly rooted in the organ idioms of Victorian England. It gives us a good taste of the Melbourne instrument’s quintessentially English origins, especially where we move down into the quieter passages, while Grainger’s Children’s March, performed here in a transcription by Edward Shippen Barnes, makes a jolly, rousing and smile-inducing conclusion. Bowman’s exuberance and light-footed rhythmic agility adds special lustre to this all-too-brief taste of Melbourne’s most famous musical son.