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Brighton Year-Round 2022

James Thomas Organ Recital All Saints, Hove

James Thomas

Genre: Live Music

Venue: All Saints, Hove


Low Down

James Thomas plays the AllsAints Hill organ in a programme of Rheinberger, Franck. J.S. Bach, Vierne and Langlais.


Each season at All Saints, Hove there’s revelatory organ recital, on the 2017-18-refurbished great Hill organ: unearthing great music we don’t know.

James Thomas, once Organ Scholar at Gonville and Caius, Cambridge, has enjoyed many appointments, culminating 1997-2020 as Director of Music at St Edmunsbury Cathedral, running music there with his wife Katherine.

He has a light touch with this large-scale but clean-edged, nimble instrument with its crisp swathe of colours encompassing French and German repertoire through to contemporary. Thomas has decided to explore the pastoral in organ music, a creative, interesting idea. The music’s there: we just don’t know it.


Joseph Rheinberger Organ Sonata No. 3 in G Op 88 (1868) ‘Pastoral’

Joseph Rheinberger (1839-1901) is a huge name in German organ music, one of the big two after Bach, himself the culmination of a tradition including Bohm and Buxtehude. To place him, he’s born after Brahms and Bruch, and 30 years after Mendelssohn, the nearest influence after Bach you can trace: so that’s the sound. Massy, a bit churchy, full of delicate sideslips.

One of those counterpoint behemoths soaked in the Bach revival. Max Reger’s his chromatically-drenched heir, he’d have been baffled by late Reger (Hubert Parry on the other hand was inspired by him late on, and by Schoenberg).

Rheinberger’s trad. And memorable. His greatest works unusually involve the organ with other instruments: if you want to sample them it’s easy: Combining the violin with his Op 149 and 166, and adding the cello in his Op 150 works, two of these are on Hyperion. They’re quite something else: singular, delicate, memorable.

And this work? Rheinberger died before he could complete 24 organ sonatas in all major and minor keys, managing 20. The Third he wrote at 29, and just before his breakthrough Fourth.

Called the Pastorale because it opens with the Hill’s growly dark register but is a kind of genre ‘pastorale’ marked ‘con moto’ which swirls between adagio and andante then rises.

Neither it nor the following delicate Intermezzo again Andante con moto are long, four and three minutes; basically the first is heavier and serious in a way beyond the nominal pastorale except a certain wandering  sense. The latter’s higher in register, contemplative, a pause between two brooding pieces.

The weight of this work is its Fugue, lasting longer than the previous two movements combined, about eight minutes, ‘Non troppo allegro so again the basic pulse doesn’t change – perhaps this is what gives the work its name, since G major unlike the traditional F isn’t so much a pastoral key (Beethoven’s 6th say) as optimistic and innocent. The whole work rises to a rather grand peroration, but not without gentler moments and quieter registers ending in bell-like campaniles and trilling sounds.


Cesar Franck Pastorale Op 19 from Six Pieces (1859)

Cesar Franck (1822-90) is amongst other things the pinnacle of 19th century French organ composers (though like Poirrot, Belgian), and we’re familiar with his choral, orchestral chamber and organ music from the last 11 years of his life, inflamed by the Irish-French composer Augusta Holmes, herself undergoing a revival. Virtually nothing he wrote before the age of 57 gets performed except the Op 18 Prelude Fugue and Variations. This Pastorale from the six Op 19 set dates just after, in 1859, when Franck was nearing 37 with his great work still 20-31 years ahead of him.

The Pastorale lasts nine minutes, less sheerly memorable than the powerful Op 18, but lingering in its mix of Bach and the characteristic reedy French sound and more Berlioz-Lisztian influence that means we drift in a soundscape less relentless in counterpoint – though Franck was a master of this elsewhere – and elusive tuneful adagio sounds in sections that follow each other with the smallest breaks. It breaks into a scherzo section three minutes in, an exciting ride of another three minutes, preaging the mature Franck and deploying the panoply of what were fast becoming classic French scherzo effects. We then get something of that Op 18 sound world: open, purely lyrical, without that portentous saturated note Franck would introduce later. It’s refreshing, even pastoral.


J.S. Bach Pastorella BWV590

This is a bit of an anomaly. Four movements untitled. But this first movement – in the classic pastoral key of F major – gives the work its name. It’s a flowing lyric piece, not at all like the classic Bach sound – but what is that? We hear relatively little of Bach’s vast organ output (John Hurford’s survey over 17 CDs gives an index of it). The next is flowing. Then the third is grander, in the Mozartian key of grieving: G minor. It’s song-like, structurally and tonally like the Air on a G String from the Orchestral Suite No, 3, which of course is in the major. The next and last, carillon-like is a far swifter affair, light, all pealing flute stops, then moves into the finale of Brandenberg Concerto No. 3, also in G major. You can see how Bach copied out pieces and varied them, so they morph into others on occasion. It’s a thrilling end.


Louis Vierne ‘Claire de Lune’ from Pieces de Fantasie Suite No. 2 Op 53

 Louis Vierne (1780-1937) is the first of the two composers here who were both blind. He died – collapsing at his organ – in a year of French loss: Roussel, Widor, Vierne’s 93-year-old teacher, Ravel. His ‘Claire de Lune’ is from Pieces de Fantasie Suite No. 2 Op 53. He wrote like Widor a vast amount of work outside the organ loft, most memorably perhaps his dark Piano Quintet of 1917, in memory of his son, unjustly shot by firing squad at the front (it should be remembered the Germans shot no-one; it’s a horribly unique distinction of the allies).

A typical sound-world from the Cavaille-Coll organ, it’s restrained, relying purely on its single-line melody slowly attenuated and  nursed through an entrancing set of higher registers, from flute through to clarinet stops and beyond. It’s aethereal and in direct contrast with the Toccata that follows (not played here).


Jean Langlais Acclamations (Sortie) from Suite Médievale (1947)

Jean Langlais (1907-91) was a blind contemporary of Olivier Messiaen and the tragically short-lived Jehan Alain. His range was less vast than Messiaen and he’s mainly known as an organ composer: but a striking one.  His ‘Acclamations’ from Suite Médievale (1947) is marked Sortie – which means get-out, like the one in B flat from Léfebure-Wely with its Wurlitzer-sound.

It’s a dark, Gothic sound Langlais conjures here, just after the war, not unlike the darkness Poulenc wrought in his own Organ Concerto of 1937, or, also from 1947, a very different coming-to-terms with war: Duruflé’s more delicate Requiem Op 9. The sheer inky-black, graunchy tones conjured here inflect the whole 17-minute work. So forget the cheery Sortie you might predict, or even Toccata in this, its last six minutes or so.

It’s certainly inflected with Messiaen’s dark redemptive tones too, but this is a feature of the generation, Alain included. Its nearest sounding cousin though is the conclusion of Messiaen’s 1935 La Nativité de Seigneur  and its side-slipping jazzy-syncopated ‘Dieu parmi nous’ (‘God Among Us’). This joy is more provisional, more Gothic, more strange perhaps, and as grand as a gargoyle. Thrilling stuff as the bass notes of the Hill thunder enough to shake some from the roofs. A superb conclusion to an enthralling and original recital.