CD Review: Three Recordings from Liverpool Cathedral

by Jonathan Ambrosino

Ever since the OHS publication of The American Classic Organ, A History in Letters, Americans have been sampling the pungent prose of Henry Willis III, grandson of England’s famous Father Willis. The book portrays Willis III as highly knowledgeable and fearlessly opinionated, unquestionably conceited yet keenly perceptive. But the English organ community never seems to have taken him very seriously. While Willis was busy cultivating an international image as English organbuilding’s leading light, the lion’s share of new English organ contracts ended up in other builders’ order books.

Willis’s persona could not have helped his sales much. His writings brim with the self-importance that only “Willis” methods were best. Many recount his colorful habit of attending recitals (particularly the inaugurals of other builders’ instruments) and leaving in disgust after the first selection (some say during it). Tonally, Willis was at fundamental odds with his contemporaries. Though the Symphonic anti-ensemble tendencies enjoyed their real heyday in America, England did not remain immune, and from the 1890s onward her organbuilding experienced a considerable transformation. Many musicians grew fond of the ultraromantic ensemble developed by Arthur Harrison, which featured leather-lipped First Diapasons, smooth Trombas and a generally dark sound. Willis was just as interested in heroic organbuilding, but of a wholly different tonal æsthetic. He was determined to prove that a truly big and bold mixture-topped ensemble could be more heroic than anything.

Since Willis campaigned for a more classically-inspired ensemble at a time when it wasn’t popular, he is sometimes considered a “Classicist.” In reality, Willis was probably trying to ignore the post-1890s tendencies of English organbuilding rather than anticipate any Classical revival. Instead, he seemed intent on carrying English developments of the 1860s and ’70s to what he perceived to be their logical ends—an ensemble-oriented modern organ. His fluework shows a tendency to take Schulze’s all-out bold voicing (occasionally with wide mouths), incorporate it into a Willis scaling system with Willis-style tierce mixtures, and produce a forthright chorus. His reeds sought to merge the refinement of Father Willis’s later examples with some of their earlier fire. Married to color mutations, imitative stops and other novel soft flues, plus electro-pneumatic action, modern consoles and eventually Skinner’s pitman chest (in an unfortunately modified design), the Willis III organ took shape.

However, it did not take shape very often. Willis might not be taken seriously at all if it were not for two monumental instruments at Westminster (London) and Liverpool cathedrals. Westminster was built in stages from 1922 to 1932, based on a scheme originally proposed by T.C. Lewis and later influenced by Marcel Dupré. Liverpool’s specification was drawn up in 1911 and modified somewhat after World War I. Much of the organ was constructed prior to World War I, stored, and eventually installed from 1924 to 1926. The Swell, Choir and enclosed Pedal departments reside on the North side, completed in September 1924; the Great, Solo, Bombarde and remainder of the Pedal reside on the South side, installed in 1926. (Several sources cite G. Donald Harrison as the man who supervised the installation work.) But for all of Willis’s efforts, these two instruments seem to have influenced foreigners far more than English peers. Builders such as J.W. Walker and Harrison & Harrison carried on contentedly in their house styles until after World War II, by which time Willis III’s influence had waned entirely in favor of truer neo-Classical aspirations.

More than anything, the Liverpool organ is an ensemble instrument. The design permits small choruses within the larger departments, so that a miniature but complete full organ might be drawn for lesser occasions. The organ also develops tonal families to a high degree of completeness. If you see a given 8’ stop, there is likely a 16’ and 4’ to go with it, as in the case of the Swell Geigens, Salicionals and Lieblich Gedeckts; Choir Violas; and Solo Violes and Hohl Flutes. (This may have been a pointed response to the Hope-Jones theory of unification.) After the Choir, Swell and Great are all drawn, the Solo has a family of keen Trombas (in fact broad Trumpets with plenty of edge) and the Bombarde organ features ringing Tubas at 16’, 8’ and 4’ plus a ten-rank Grand Chorus. While the full Swell or Great alone is substantial, even devastating, no single division will really fill the room itself. Start coupling them together, and watch the building’s acoustic begin to stir. Fully drawn with the three 32’ flues and two 32’ reeds in stereo (one on each side), there are few ensembles to match it. While perhaps not the loudest, Liverpool is one of the largest and grandest ensembles, and the clarity which with it permeates this huge building is a remarkable achievement.

The organ has known just three masters. Harry Goss-Custard reigned from 1924 to 1955, succeeded by his pupil Noel Rawsthorne, who served twenty-five years before being followed by his pupil Ian Tracey in 1980. (Two years later, Tracey was also appointed Master of the Choristers.) Each player has certainly known how to cope with a big sound in a big room. Goss-Custard’s playing, well-preserved on 78s, brims with majesty and drama, as in his Funeral March from Chopin’s Second Piano Sonata. And, as discussed later, Rawsthorne has no difficulty cutting the room to size. But of the lot, Ian Tracey’s playing is the most instantly recognizable. Its hallmarks are relentless energy, crispness, and a reliance upon rhythmic rather than dynamic methods of phrasing. Tracey uses extremely precise articulation and a mostly staccato touch, probably since the principle of “duration equals intensity” is exponentially magnified in a room this size. As with the best theatre organ players, one’s impression is that each note is struck, held and released with perfect unanimity and for precisely the duration intended. When Tracey sinks into a chord, and the tone finally has a chance to stir the huge acoustic, there is no escaping the visceral punch. In this way, Tracey holds the organ’s (and building’s) power in reserve, while overcoming difficulties of clarity and projection. As a colorist, Tracey will explore the whole organ in characteristic pieces, but his definitions of the chorus can be limited in louder works. Tracey’s transcription playing treats the orchestral score as organ music, rather than striving to reproduce its orchestral nuance and sonority. In this way, Tracey follows a tradition more W.T. Best than Edwin H. Lemare, and carries it off in fine style.

Both Organ Recital and Liverpool Encores are a layman’s showcase of organ and literature. Organ Recital is a straightforward collection of favorite organ music and transcriptions, and a fine introduction to Tracey’s exuberant playing. The Handel, Purcell and Cocker all display spirited, clean-cut performances in which a good chorus accompanies the Tuba Magna, later building to nearly full organ and a rousing close. Crown Imperial receives similar treatment, relieved by foundations in the middle sections. Tracey’s Widor is stately and regular; once again, his precise attention to left-hand articulation propels the piece without actually accelerating it. The Fiocco Allegro, the Badinerie, Purcell Air, and Yon feature various flute possibilities, both singly and in combination. (Be warned: the Solo 2’ Piccolo is actually a 1’, which will explain much right-channel activity.) Tracey’s Bach is colorful, clear and dramatic, and in the Badinerie, he displays a real talent for phrasing with his feet. In the Mulet Noël, he uses his own registrations, not Mulet’s; combined with a leisurely tempo, the piece becomes more a gentle lullaby than a verset. The Tu es petra is similar to the Widor performance, in that Tracey’s left-hand precision keeps the piece especially focused.

There is something straightforward about the above performances, however. The more interesting music-making happens in the Bossi, Thalben-Ball, Mulet and Reger. The Bossi Scherzo presents continually repeated phrases on quieter flutes, reeds and foundations; the alternations grow to a large climax and then recede, whence the cycle repeats. Small episodes take place, alternating Clarinet with flute combinations, or chunky chords on the minor Swell reeds, or the 16 and 8 Choir Clarinets. These build-ups relieve the otherwise massive chorus combinations; one can hear the ensemble without the heroic Grand Chorus mixture, which Tracey otherwise regularly draws to the Great. The Thalben-Ball again highlights the foundations, clearly displaying the unusual edge which the double-languid Great First brings to the diapasons. Eventually full Swell is added, and Tracey builds to a powerful climax, reducing back to almost nothing. Following Sir George’s request for a “warm ending,” the final chord is given on the exquisite Choir Melodia and Unda Maris with soft 32’.

The Reger seems especially at home on this organ, music that keeps demanding more, and from an organ which has no trouble supplying it. After a huge introduction, Tracey begins the Passacaglia on a soft pedal with 32’ Violone and quiet string-and-flute combination, changing at each variation to flutes, then foundations against mixtures in the toccata variation, and eventually building through the various reed choruses to a heraldic close. With its variety of moods and colors, this performance is especially satisfying.

The principal criticism of Organ Recital is its close-miked sound, which prevents the listener from hearing the organ’s real color and the acoustic’s true drama. Instead of hearing sound interact with room, we hear cause and effect. The dry, one-dimensional result begs for a wider variety of ensemble sounds, in that all the mixtures tend to sound the same. Liverpool Encores addresses these issues handsomely. It offers a more interesting variety of repertoire (this time entirely transcriptions), a more stimulating use of the organ, and a superb and realistic recorded sound. Mirabilis’s recording engineer David Wyld has created his label specifically to produce recordings which create an on-location effect. As he notes in the jacket, “Liverpool Cathedral is one of the largest enclosed spaces in the world, and this amazing acoustic produces ‘washes’ of sound that are often overwhelming and moving. Mirabilis has simply recorded the sound on a ‘what-you-hear-is-what-you-get, warts and all’ basis.”

As with Organ Recital, Encores has its share of trumpet tunes. The Susato is the best, an overwhelming introduction to organ and room. Those early-music buffs weary of sakbutts and krummhorns may welcome nearly full organ in dialogue against Tuba Magna here. The Soler features fanfares on other reeds; either the Solo Trombas or Bombarde Tubas, they are much more beautiful than the sometimes-coarse Tuba Magna. The Boyce and Haydn display more sprightly flutes, as well as an occasional episode on the characteristic lieblich flute tone. Like Vaughan-Williams’ folk-song collections, Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs is a medley of nautical tunes; Tracey uses the piece to display the organ’s many solo voices and his most orchestrally-oriented performance. Transitions are nicely handled and a multitude of solo voices are drawn, heightened by gusts of wind and rain (the piece was recorded during a terrific downpour), quite in keeping with the 19th-century’s fetish for storm effects.

Elements aside, this disc’s most interesting selections are the Mozart, Fauré and the Goss-Custard arrangement of Danse macabre. The Mozart is given a free and energetic treatment in the outward sections, while the middle part is nicely (if rapidly) wrought with dialogues around the instrument. Tracey’s ability to sink into chords is beautifully demonstrated here, aided by the realization of inner voices. In the andante, he brings out certain left-hand melodies with a Clarinet (it is hard to know which; there are four), and lets the section breathe with several contrasting flutes. The final fugue eventually builds to full organ, with the Tuba chorus thrown in for the two final chords. If this sounds typically English, the effect <I>is<D> red-blooded and wonderfully effective.

Tracey’s most sensitive playing comes in the Fauré. The arpeggiated accompaniment is taken on a limpid open flute, and continues to offer a complete tour of the organ’s solo reeds. Tracey chooses the right sound for the right phrase, and treats us to some appropriately haunting moments on the French Horn and a mournful dialogue on two clarinets at the conclusion.

Americans who are accustomed to the Lemare arrangement of Danse macabre will be surprised at Harry Goss-Custard’s version. Where Lemare’s arrangement is ominous and explicit, Goss-Custard’s is downright scary though somewhat simplified, to which Tracey adds his own excitement by precise and sometimes thundering pedal. Goss-Custard’s arrangement doesn’t fare well under scrutiny, however. There are several large departures from the orchestral score, including much re-harmonization and the replacement of certain scales with trills. It is more a re-arrangement than a transcription, but Tracey and the organ make it quite effective. His doubling of the tempo at the climax certainly helps.

Of the two discs, Liverpool Encores has the edge, both for sound, variety and general enjoyment. The Susato alone is worth having when friends stop over and you want to demonstrate the new speakers, while the headphone listener is more likely to find this disk a durable exercise on the ears. With good headgear, the experience is an admirable substitute for plane fare.

Although billed as Pipe Organ Spectacular, Noel Rawsthorne’s recording has little glitz or puff, instead a mature sampling of staple romantic repertoire. Though a less energetic player than Tracey, Rawsthorne is no less dramatic and often more subtle, through a wide range of touches and a tastefully generous rubato which avoids the tortured extremes of so many precious young American players. He also seems to enjoy displaying numerous permutations of the organ’s ensemble. Where Tracey seems to use certain basic ensemble combinations, Rawsthorne constantly makes the current large chorus sound subtly unlike the previous one. If there is one drawback, it is cautious tempi. Some restraint is often welcome in these oft-rushed pieces, but the music occasionally demands more speed than Rawsthorne seems willing to give it.

The Liszt BACH is the most prone to this syndrome, not helped by the piece’s tendency to sound like a series of vignettes. Hearing Rawsthorne play Reger, however, may explain where Tracey learned to do it so well. Rawsthorne’s Benedictus unfolds like a tender, supple choral piece. He makes real sense of Reger’s surprise modulations, and as the piece builds, he opens the organ shamelessly, but always with purpose and in stride. The Toccata displays a constant variety of touch and registration. Rawsthorne makes glorious build-ups, while always letting the room provide its share of the drama. Because he starts small, the large combinations sound enormous, and when it seems that all has been drawn, he couples in the rest. It may be the disc’s finest selection.

Reger is an apt introduction to the Reubke, another piece which can easily become an unrelated series of events. Rawsthorne is on his best ground here, infusing his Reger’s sense of ordered architecture with equal drama and real imagination. For example, many players begin the fugue at a moderate tempo and gradually accelerate as the piece builds. Rawsthorne follows suit, but expands on the concept by introducing large ritards at key points, from which he resumes at an even faster pace than before. This approach lends real shape to the fugue, while making its length more digestible. Rawsthorne is careful to articulate the piece’s many left-hand broken octaves, and his transitions have a particular rhythmic sensibility which also helps to bind the piece together. Occasionally, there is an overly-relaxed page, or a ritard which hinders the forward direction of the music. Sometimes, the result is an actual hesitation, perhaps spoiling a dramatic effect it was intended to create. At other times, however, Rawsthorne will surprise us with a thrilling surge forward.

Rawsthorne’s registrational imagination intensifies the piece’s more delicate moments. From the delicious opening line on the 16 and 8 Choir Clarinets, Rawsthorne haunts us with the organ’s eerier colors. The middle section features dialogues between clarinet and trumpet solos, as well as cameo appearances by the French horn. Where Reubke indicates Harmonica, Rawsthorne does not limit himself to one registration, but offers us various flute colors, and eventually the French Horn—highly suitable for the last such phrase.

Rawsthorne’s Franck is somewhat conservative. His registrations are the originals modified. For example, the opening ensembles of the a minor Choral include mixtures, while the choral sections are played on flues only with no trumpet. While solid, these performances lack the creativity and spontaneity of the Reger and Reubke. Part of the difference lies in dynamic phrasing. Where Rawsthorne creates dynamic interest through registrational changes in the German pieces, the Franck offers less opportunity. Rawsthorne phrases so beautifully with the box that one wishes he did it more often.

This disc is well worth having: for the durability of its performances, the insightful Reger and Reubke, and the fine recorded sound. While not as atmospheric as the Mirabilis recording, the effect is entirely plausible and the organ sounds magnificent.

A tribute to both of these players is their mastery of the Infinite Speed and Gradation Swell engines, far from the normal sort of expression device. Developed in 1933 by Aubrey Thompson-Allen (later Curator of Organs at Yale University), these complex swell motors were designed to permit an infinitely slow box opening, while also allowing for instantaneous open and shut for accents. An unusual swell pedal controls these motors. The pedal rests in a half-way open position, spring-loaded in either direction. Pressing the pedal open causes the box to open, at a speed relative to how far the pedal is depressed. Press the pedal a little way and the motor will operate at its slowest speed; pressing the pedal entirely will snap the box open. A gauge indicates the shade position. As can be imagined, these boxes require a great deal of practice for good phrasing.

Two final thoughts on Willis III. First, our three largest Cathedrals—New York’s St. John the Divine, Washington’s National and San Francisco’s Grace—all received Skinner or Æolian-Skinner organs. As each Cathedral has been finished, each organ has been found to be inadequate, and has received considerable rebuilding and enlargement. While the Liverpool organ has had minor modifications, such as the remodeling of the original unenclosed Choir into a Positif and minor alterations and exchanges, the full ensemble remains essentially intact. Several reports indicate that it was deafening in 1926 (when only about a third of the Cathedral was built); now that the building is complete, Willis appears to have been right all along.

Second, consider Willis’s letter to G. Donald Harrison after he spent three weeks in America during September, 1952. In three quick pages, Willis summarizes Harrison’s career, identifying the successes and failures, and points to dangerous and unmusical tendencies in Harrison’s latest work. It demonstrates Willis’s remarkable ability to absorb the whole style after seeing just a few examples. Forty years later, Willis’s assessment is still candid, entirely accurate, and a viewpoint many Harrison scholars have come to adopt. Perhaps because we cannot look past Willis’s III pomposity, we may be ignoring his best lessons.