The Virtuoso Organist: Tudor and Jacobean Masterworks
Stephen Farr, organ, Choir of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge Resonus RES10143. 68’35
William Byrd, John Bull, Thomas Tallis, Thomas Tomkins, John Blitheman & Orlando Gibbons. 2013 Taylor & Boody Opus 66 organ, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge.
The programme on this CD is designed to demonstrate the new 7-stop chamber organ in the Chapel of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. It is designed in a 16th to early 17th century Dutch/North German style, one arguably similar to that of the English organ of the same period, about which we know very little as far as the sound is concerned.
The programme covers the English organ repertoire from about 1540 to 1637. Tallis’s Ecce tempus idoneum and the anonymous Bina caelestis and Magnificat include chanted verses sung by the men of Sidney Sussex College Choir in the ‘alternatim’ tradition of the period. The musical highlight is Farr’s magnificent performance of Thomas Tomkins’s monumental Offertory, at over 17 minutes long, one of the most complex examples of a uniquely English genre. It was very likely influenced by the two large-scale Tallis examples in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book. Stephen Farr’s control of the pulse and build up of tension in this remarkable piece is exemplary – he demonstrates similar skill in Orlando Gibbons Fantasia (the Fancy in Gam ut flat) and the concluding Byrd A Fancie, from ‘My Ladye Nevells Booke’ (1591).
Tallis himself is represented by two verses on Ecce tempus idoneaum, featuring the prominent ‘false relations’ so typical of Tallis. The earliest pieces are from the enormous British Library Add. 26669 collection, dating from around 1540/50 and later owned and annotated by Tomkins – the hymn setting of Bina caelestis and a Magnificat by an anonymous composer that could well be Thomas Preston. The secular repertoire is represented by John Bull’s Galliard ‘to the Pavin in D sol re’ and Coranto Joyeuse, the latter using the delightfully pungent Vox Virginia reed stop.
Although he allows himself an occasional flourish (notably in the anonymous Bina caelestis) Farr’s playing is methodical in a way that is entirely appropriate for recordings. His interpretations will repay repeated listening, with no risk of annoying mannerisms. In live performance one might expect a little more flexibility in interpretation, but such individualisms can be tricky when set in recorded stone. His articulation and touch are attractively subtle. We can hear the occasional slight pairing of notes (for example, in track 4, John Bull’s In nomine II) but he otherwise wears his period performance credentials lightly.
The organ sounds very effective in this repertoire, and speaks into a helpful acoustic. It is tuned in a very appropriate (but not quite meantone) temperament devised for the restoration of the famous late 17th century Schnitger organ in Norden, Germany. A reasonable solution, not least as there are several parts of the English organ repertoire of this period that can sound weird in meantone temperament, even if that could well have been the tuning of the period. The CD notes include comprehensive essays on the music (by Magnus Williamson) and the organ (by the organ builder, George Taylor).