Tom Bell: Northern Lights: Contemporary Works for Organ
Though he's a first-rate organist well-versed in the works of composers such as Bliss, Elgar, Brahms, and Vaughan Williams, there's nothing stuffy about Tom Bell. A bio scan suggests the London-based musician would be as comfortable hoisting a post-concert pint at the local pub as pontificating on the merits of Schoenberg. Bell is someone whose likes include tea drinking, good beer, and—wait for it—steam locomotives. Yet while he's open-minded enough to perform with a beatboxer (as he did with Shlomo in a 2014 performance for BBC Radio 3 of Ravel's Bolero), he's also a dedicated educator, writer, and choir master (specifically, Organist and Choir Master at St Michael's Church, Chester Square in central London). His latest recording, a contemporary music collection recorded in late 2007 at the Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin, Blackburn, frames numerous world premieres by the likes of Matthew Sergeant, Martin Bussey, and Emma Nielsen with works by Peter Maxwell Davies. The organ Bell plays on the recording is a magnificent sounding creature whose settings are listed in the release's booklet along with a colour photograph of the instrument.
Bell is the sole presence on Northern Lights with one exception: soprano Angela Hicks, whose voice is the first sound heard on the recording. That's because Maxwell Davies' 1960 setting Fantasia on O Magnum Mysterium begins with a stirring vocal chant that forms the basis for all of the choral and instrumental material that follows. Interestingly, everything Bell plays in the Fantasia, the work's conclusion, develops out of the chant's first three notes. Sixteen minutes in length, the piece is recognizably in the composer's style in the way it both honours tradition and challenges it via bold modern compositional gestures. Written in the early ‘70s, the Three Organ Voluntaries (“Psalm 124,” “O God Abufe,” “All Sons of Adam”) that follow are gentler and intimate by comparison though no less identifiable as work by the composer, even if they use 16th-century settings of Scottish church music as starting points.
Following the pieces by Maxwell Davies are ones by Alexander Goehr and Ronald Stevenson, key figures associated with the Royal Manchester College of Music. Goehr's at times spooky and tumultuous Chaconne, written in the mid-‘70s and arranged for organ in 1979, towers over many of the recording's other pieces in being twenty-two minutes and symphonic in scope. Length in this case is justified by the work's structure, which involves thirty-two variations originating out of an opening pedal line. Stevenson's Chorale Prelude and Fugue on themes from Wagner, by comparison, pairs a stately prelude with an expressive, at times passionate fugue based on the Shepherd's Air from Tristan and Isolde.
The concluding Maxwell Davies setting aside (the affectingly melodic Farewell to Stromness, played on a chamber organ by Kenneth Tickell), many of the remaining pieces on the double-CD recording are ones by young friends and colleagues of Bell's. The brief Toccata came about after he met Matthew Sergeant in a registration queue at the Royal Northern College of Music and cajoled the composition student into writing a piece for him. A dramatically wilder setting than those preceding it on the set, Sergeant's wildly careening firebrand, composed during his undergraduate years, was his first organ piece. Its title a line from T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi, And an old white horse... is the first of three works on the recording by award-winning choral director Martin Bussey (b. 1958). Swelling to an almost violent level of intensity during the middle section, the piece is undoubtedly one of the most vigorous and rhythmically insistent on the release. In his 3 Border Studies, huge chords suggest the majesty of a towering architectural structure during “Jedburgh Abbey,” whereas “Dryburgh Abbey,” being situated on a peaceful spot, paints a decidedly more lyrical picture.Deemed “impish” by an audience member after being performed live with Tom Bell's Organ Piece as its working title, Sasha Johnson Manning's subsequently titled Puck impresses as the set's most playful work, especially when its bright organ patterns exude the gleeful spirit of carousel music. Also included is the six-part Variations for Organ, a shape-shifting work by Royal Northern College of Music composition tutor Gary Carpenter (b. 1951) and containing, in Bell's estimation, “possibly the funkiest pedal solo in the repertoire." By now it should be clear that one would be hard pressed to find a better collection of contemporary organ works than the two-hour Northern Lights, especially when its programme is so comprehensive and Bell's rendering of the works so consistently strong.