Gothic Toccata

Bruce Steele
Organ Australia (Australia)

As if in answer to Robert Ampt’s complaint about the dearth of Australian organ music comes this CD from Melba. All the composers except Hart, who at least composed here, were Australian-born so in some sense this answers. And for this reason alone, the recording makes an important cultural statement.

In fact, it’s the variety of styles and forms that is particularly intriguing about this program. There’s something here for all tastes: from the neo-classical (Koehne), the ‘English nostalgic’ (Thalben-Ball), the exploratory ‘soundscapes’ (Schultz), the ‘salon-pop’ (Hill) to the sheer romp of Grainger – and things in between. And it’s worth noting that of the 14 tracks, only four have previously been recorded.

There are other good things here: the recording of this huge organ is brilliantly clear and brings out the subtleties and the refinement of the voicing. Calvin [Bowman's] playing is lively – at times brilliant, as in the beautiful Mills Epithalamium and Koehne’s tour de force Gothic Toccata – and always sensitive to the music. His registrations show him completely at home with the vast palette of the revitalised Melbourne organ.

The accompanying booklet has several of the composers’ own comments on their work. Ross Edwards, for instance remarks that he had associated the organ with ‘ponderous nobility’. The two pieces here show a remarkable change of heart. Dawn Canticle is his own reworking of an a cappella choral work Dawn Mantra and is among the best works on the disc. And his Organmaninya (dedicated to Calvin Bowman) in his own words makes the organ ‘dance’.

Bowman’s own transcriptions are delicious – the Valse Triste even introducing glockenspiel and drum rolls! – and the Batchelor Song having the melody in a 4’ pedal line. The Fritz Hart Fantasia is the longest work on the program. Though something of a period piece now, it shows an Edwardian composer using the organ orchestrally. Calvin’s registration brings this out to the fullest extent, though I rather jib at his adding a cheeky flourish to the last unison notes. Hart’s use of the ‘Vexilla regis’ plainsong invites a comparison with the roughly contemporary Edward Bairstow’s Toccata-Prelude on ‘Pange lingua’ – to Hart’s advantage.

Produced with assistance from the Australian Government, the Australia Council and the City of Melbourne ‘Living Arts’ program, this is an important recording and congratulations are due to Melba Recordings for undertaking.