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The final two issues in Priory’s epic Great European Organs series might effectively have been issued as a double CD under the banner ‘The Glory of Willis’ – there is a slight sense that, pace the many wonderful instruments we have met on this 30-year odyssey round the organ lofts of continental Europe (see feature, C&O Mar/Apr 2016), the series has come home to two of the most sheerly magnificent and rhapsodically English instruments these islands have to offer. And here, the legacy organs of the former Willis dynasty have had the good fortune to fall into the care and attention of two outstanding individuals: in Dublin, Trevor Crowe has been engaged in a 30-year project largely to reverse the effects of a controversial 1963 Walker rebuild and to ameliorate the projection of the concealed organ for congregational benefit, using original Willis or Willis-derived materials; in Liverpool, for an equivalent period David Wells has tuned and cared for the gigantic instrument for Willis, Harrisons, and now as manager of his own firm.

David Leigh opens his recital with the one major organ work by Irish composer Sir Robert Prescott Stewart (1825-94) – the engaging Concert Fantasia in D minor. He then goes Gallic with the Prélude funèbre and Sortie from Six pièces by Guy Ropartz and Toccata pour l’élévation by Dupré/Dukas pupil Jean Giroud (1910-97); the central core of the programme is Edwin Lemare’s typically virtuosic Organ Symphony no.1 in G minor, which lives up to 19th-century ideals in its cyclic use of the themes; he finishes with Harvey Grace’s Fantasy Prelude ‘Resurgam’ (‘I shall rise again’), which parades a chorale theme through an allegro, a scherzo-like section, a passacaglia and a majestic full organ recap. All of this grand, delicious and occasionally unrelenting music is delivered with skill and panache: the organ sounds brilliant and ravishing.

As Noel Rawsthorne’s opening salvo in EMI’s legendary Great Cathedral Organs series demonstrated, the full panoply of Liverpool Cathedral’s mighty V/152 Willis organ is hard to capture: its height and physical distribution across vast distances, and the consequent sound delay with which all Liverpool organists wrestle, makes every recording a challenge. But producer Neil Collier, editor Paul Crichton and performer David Poulter sign off the Great European Organs series with rare accomplishment, showcasing the organ in a programme which plays to all its strengths. Elgar’s Organ Sonata in G announces itself with grandeur; the enveloping sweetness of the strings and burnished mahogany tones of the woodwinds emerge strongly in Bridge’s Adagio, Howells’s Master Tallis’s Testament, and Londonderry Air by Poulter’s predecessor-but-one, Noel Rawsthorne. Final salutes for GEO are provided, appropriately, by William Walton’s Crown Imperial, the Henry V Suite and Orb and Sceptre, with spine-tingling fanfares on the Corona organ’s Trompette Militaire. Bravo!

GRAEME KAY Read the full review on Agora Classica


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