Tuesday, 16 February 2021

From a celebration of Leonardo da Vinci and the first moon flight to a sequence of O Antiphons, the organ music of Cecilia McDowall performed by William Fox

Cecilia McDowall Organ works; William Fox, Lucy Humphris; NAXOS

Cecilia McDowall Organ works; William Fox, Lucy Humphris; NAXOS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 February 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Bringing together a selection of Cecilia McDowall's music for organ, in a programme full of variety and imagination

Composer Cecilia McDowall is perhaps best known for her choral works, though her output extends far beyond this. An imaginative new disc from organist William Fox on Naxos brings together Cecilia McDowall's output for organ, including music for organ and trumpet with trumpeter Lucy Humphris. The core of the disc is a group of sacred and religiously inspired works, the 2018 O Antiphon Sequence, alongside Three Antiphons (2006) and the George Herbert Trilogy (2013/2020), plus two most definitely secular pieces, Celebration (2014) and First Flight (2019). The disc was recorded on the 1963, J.W. Walker organ at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington, London.

The disc opens with Celebration, an occasional piece written by McDowall for an academic ceremony at the University of Portsmouth and including a quotation from To Portsmouth, a round written about the city in 1610. The result is a brightly imaginative celebratory work.

First Flight was written for the opening of a new organ at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. This took place in 2019, the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci and the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing. So the title is very much a punning one, involving the first flight of the new instrument, da Vinci's ideas about man's flight, and of course flying to the moon. Though fast, the work is not so much an examination of bravura as an interesting juxtaposition of fast textures, bringing out a wide range of organ colours.

The American Guild of Organists commissioned O Antiphons in 2018. The work is a sequence of seven movements, each based on the texts of one of the O Antiphons which are used during the last week of Advent. McDowall structures the piece by having each movement based on a particular note of the scale. Interestingly, McDowall produced a choral setting of one of the antiphons, 'O Oriens', which is musically linked to the organ work, but she does not seem to have written a comparable choral cycle of all seven.

The result is a sequence of seven contrasting movements, each different in texture and style, resulting in a highly satisfying sequence, ranging from the bright brilliance of 'O Clavis David' to the thoughtful 'O Oriens' ending on a gentle note with 'O Emmanuel'.

The George Herbert Trilogy consists of three movements, each inspired by a passage from one of Herbert's poems. On this disc, the three movements are dispersed, rather than hearing them as a whole. The first movement is like a dazzling toccata, and in fact Fox makes it the fine conclusion to the recital but I would be intrigued to hear the trilogy performed as a single work. The second movement is the longest; complex and dramatic, it evokes a strong emotional response to Herbert's poetry, whilst the third is brighter and more delicate.

JS Bach only wrote 46 of the chorale-prelude from the planned 164 in his Orgelbüchlein, and the Orgelbüchlein project aimed to fill in the gaps with chorale-preludes from contemporary composers. McDowall's contribution was Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (Where the Lord God does not Dwell with Us). It is a light and delicate piece, again full of striking textures.

Three Antiphons for trumpet and organ are adaptations by McDowall of existing motets setting the three Latin texts, 'Ave Regina', 'Ave Maria', and 'Regina Coeli'. The three are fascinating, I know the original choral works but bringing in a trumpet entirely changes the musical landscape. When listening to the disc cold, I was struck by the bluesy element to the trumpet's music, and also the sense of Charles Ives in the background. Neither the programme notes nor McDowall's website explain quite why the piece came into being, why three Latin motets arranged for this combination. But the result is a striking and intriguing work.

William Fox has taken the 'Pavan' from McDowall's 1999 work, Four Piano Solos and created a lovely organ piece. The work was originally written in memory of McDowall's godfather and is a touching and beautiful piece.

Fox himself writes a fine programme note full of information about the works. But this bringing together of a fine body of music (all but one dating from the last 15 years) makes me interested to find out what it is about the organ that makes McDowall keep coming back to it, or is the creation of this varied selection of works simply happenstance? For me, as someone that does not listen to organ music a lot, this is a disc to dip into but the variety and imagination which has gone both into the music and the performance is notable.

Cecilia McDowall (born 1951) - Celebration (2014)
Cecilia McDowall - First Flight (2019)
Cecilia McDowall - O Antiphon Sequence (2018)
Cecilia McDowall - George Herbert Trilogy (2013/2020)
Cecilia McDowall - Wo Gott der Herr nicht bei uns hält (‘Where the Lord God does not Dwell with Us’) (2011)
Cecilia McDowall - Three Antiphons (2006)
Cecilia McDowall - Pavane (from Four Piano Solos), arr. William Fox
William Fox (organ)
Lucy Humphris (trumpet)
Recorded 4–5 March 2020 at the Church of St John the Evangelist, Islington, London
NAXOS 8579077 1CD 



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