Wednesday 01 February, 2012

Song of Bournemouth
The autograph full score

Song of Bournemouth The autograph full score and set of orchestral parts of Whitlock's Song of Bournemouth has been discovered in the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra's Library in Poole. A copy of the short score of this piece (composed in 1935 for the Pageant of Wessex, staged in Bournemouth's Pavilion Theatre) had earlier been found amongst Bernard Walker's musical papers in 1999 and published in Malcolm Riley's Percy Whitlock Companion.

The 15th May Festival of 2010 at St Stephen's Church, Bournemouth was a very special one. It commemorated the 200th anniversary of the birth of S S Wesley and the founding of Bournemouth - and, of particular significance for this Festival, the completion of the restoration of the church's historic Hill organ. This instrument was renovated by Rushworth and Dreaper in 1951, and after nearly 60 years it was in urgent need of major restoration work, this time undertaken by the York firm of Principal Pipe Organs, directed by Geoffrey Coffin. Even back in1931, soon after Percy Whitlock's arrival at St Stephen's, he stated 'We badly need a new console and some modern strings, and of course some kind of 32'. The first and last of these enhancements will comprise the second stage of the work on the organ, consisting of a mobile console in the nave and the addition of a 32' polyphon. The organ case and visible pipes have been painted, adding to the visual effect of the organ, in a rather remote situation, which in no way detracts from its effectiveness when heard in the nave, assisted by the church's wonderful acoustics. Much credit is due to Ian Harrison, the church's Director of Music for his long and patient dedication to the task of raising the considerable sums needed for work on an organ which meant so much to Percy from the first time he played it.

The music of the Festival could be regarded as a three-day tribute to Percy, whose own compositions have a very special place in the organ repertoire: never easy to play or register, modern aids to performance now make it simpler to carry out the composer's often elaborate stop indications. Saturday May 1 was an especially significant day: the 64th anniversary of Percy's death marked the rededication of the St Stephen's organ by the Bishop of Winchester at Evensong sung by the choir of Chichester Cathedral. At the conclusion of the service, Simon Lawford, assistant organist of this cathedral, played 'Paean' from Five Short Pieces which had formed part of Percy's first recital programme in St Stephen's church on September 3rd 1930, being dedicated to his wife Edna. Parry's chorale prelude on The Old 104th also appeared in this programme, and that too was played by Simon Lawford before Evensong on May 1.

The Saturday of the May Festival always concludes with the 'Percy Whitlock' recital; this year it was given by James Lancelot of Durham Cathedral. It goes without saying that both the choice of programme and performance were beyond praise; given the very limited time for preparation, the soloist's impeccable reading of mainly major works in the organ repertoire exploited fully the varied colours of this most characterful instrument. This was particularly evident in the Elgar Sonata, whose quasi-orchestral themes and textures pose many problems in registration and interpretation, all of which James Lancelot surmounted faultlessly. The opening Howells Rhapsody no 3 displayed the famous chorus reeds to stunning effect, while Karg-Elert's miniature masterpiece from his opus 65 Schmücke dich, o liebe Seele provided contrast in the refined softer sounds of the instrument. Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G minor is reckoned to be one of the most demanding works of all this composer's works for organ; here, bright choruses and impeccable rhythmic drive showed how suited the organ is for music of that period. Percy's Plymouth Suite is one of the most approachable of all his organ works. Like Elgar's Enigma Variations, it's a reflection of certain characters: organists who met for an IAO congress in Plymouth in 1937. And it displays the composer's fertile imagination in all its fascinating variety: the bold allegro risoluto with which the suite opens; the richly imaginative three middle movements and the closing Toccata, making for exciting, compulsive listening thanks to a performer totally identified with this unique example of Percy's composing skills.

Hymns at services throughout the Festival commemorated the Wesley anniversary and also the music of Parry, born in Bournemouth; they also included hymn tunes by Percy's successor Cyril Knight, who died in 1982, and by Canon Anthony Caesar, a former member of the St Stephen's staff. Choral music at the Festival included a first performance of Andrew Millington's setting of words by Charles Wesley: 'Victim Divine, thy grace we claim' as well as the same composer's Mass setting Missa Alme Pater. The Choral Concert on May 2nd included Parry's I was Glad and Anthony Caesar's charming setting of William Blake's 'Echoing Green' poem, sung by the choir of Durlston Court School, where Ian Harrison is Director of Music. Instrumental interludes were provide by the Festival Orchestra led by Jane Bultz in a polished performance of Parry's Lady Radnor's Suite and Handel's Organ Concerto in F op 4 no 4, in which the Festival Organist, Andrew Fletcher, showed great sensitivity in achieving authentic organ texture and precise balance. The concert concluded with Percy Whitlock's Song of Bournemouth (first published by the Whitlock Trust in 2007); while the composer's own text seems dated today, the 'music' (as Percy modestly styled it) was eminently singable, enabling a full church to join lustily in each chorus. After that, Parry's Jerusalem appeared something of an anti-climax, but at least it ensured that everyone left in good humour, having thus 'proclaimed depression's knell' as the Song of Bournemouth put it!

May 3rd saw a full programme, with a lunchtime recital by the Bultz Quartet performing music by Mozart and Coleridge-Taylor; Choral Evensong sung by Wyndcliffe Voices (conductor Philip Drew) included S S Wesley's much loved anthem 'Thou will keep him in perfect peace' and ended with Philip Bayley's performance of Parry's Fantasia and Fugue in G. The final Festival event comprised choral and organ music, and included outstanding items from the Anglican choir repertoire: Charles Wood's O thou the central orb, Basil Harwood's O how glorious is the Kingdom and S S Wesley's The Lord is my Shepherd and Wash me throughly. A contemporary element was introduced in Anthony Caesar's setting of a poem by Timothy Dudley-Smith Child of the stable's secret birth. Organ solos were provided by Andrew Fletcher, Roy Massey, and Ian Harrison. This comprehensive programme of first rate music formed a fitting conclusion to a Festival of exceptional interest, meriting the highest praise for everyone involved, and especially for its Director Ian Harrison, assisted by a highly efficient Committee. 

The 2011 Festival, from April 30- May 2, is now keenly anticipated.

Anthony Caldicott