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"The excellent art of Voluntary"

Robert Costin, organ

rec: [n.d.], Cambridge, Pembroke College
Atoll - ACD 241 (73'44")
Liner-notes: E
Cover & track-list

John BLOW (1649-1708): Cornet Voluntary in a minor; Voluntary in C; William BOYCE (1711-1779): Trumpet Voluntary I in D; Jeremiah CLARKE (c1674-1707): The Prince of Denmark's March; Trumpet Tune; William CROFT (1678-1727): Voluntary for double organ in a minor; Christopher GIBBONS (1615-1676): Voluntary for double organ in a minor; Orlando GIBBONS (1583-1625): Fantasia of Four Parts; George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759): Overture to Samson (HWV 57); Matthew LOCKE (c1622-1677): Voluntary in a minor; Voluntary in a minor [1]; Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): Voluntary in C (Z 717); Voluntary in d minor (Z 718); Voluntary in G (Z 720); Voluntary for double organ in d minor (Z 719); John STANLEY (1712-1786): Trumpet Voluntary in D; Voluntary in g minor, op. 5,9 [2]; William WALOND (1719-1768): Cornet Voluntary in G

Sources: [1] Matthew Locke, Melothesia, or Certain General Rules for Playing upon a Continued-Bass, with a Choice Collection of Lessons for the Harpsicord and Organ of all Sorts, 1673; [2] John Stanley, Ten Voluntarys, op. 5, 1748

The Voluntary is one of the main forms of English organ music of the 17th and 18th centuries. Strictly speaking the word form is not correct as it suggests that there was a fixed structure. Robert Costin, in his liner-notes, refers to the English music historian Roger North who considered the voluntary an activity rather than a fixed piece, an activity that he viewed as the "consummate office of a musician". The amount of repertoire from the 17th century is not that large, and the reason is probably the same as why there are not that many organ works by composer/organists of the North German organ school of the 17th century. Organists were supposed to improvise, and the pieces which have been preserved, for instance by the likes of Purcell and Blow, could well be the result of their educational activities.

Another comment is needed in regard to the voluntary. I called it a form of organ music, but that is not quite true. 'Keyboard music' would be a better term: English organs usually didn't have a pedalboard, and because of that this repertoire is also playable on other keyboard instruments: the harpsichord and - in the second half of the 18th century - the fortepiano. Many editions of voluntaries of the 18th century mention both instruments on their title pages. The fact that a number of voluntaries refer to a specific organ-stop, such as the trumpet or the cornet, suggests that they were conceived for the organ in the first place, but doesn't exclude a performance on another keyboard instrument.

This could well be the reason that the repertoire from the 18th century is considerably larger. As playing music at home or in social gatherings became increasingly popular among the bourgeoisie several collections of voluntaries were printed. Fairly recently I reviewed two discs with this kind of repertoire, played by William Whitehead and Robert Woolley respectively. As far as I can see the programme which Costin put together is largely different from what was on offer there, although I haven't compared them piece by piece. Unfortunately the documentation of the present disc is rather poor: details of the collections from which the various pieces are taken are omitted, and that doesn't make a comparison of these discs any easier. I also don't know when the recording took place as the booklet and the rear inlay don'n mention any date or year, not even a year of copyright.

The programme is played more or less in chronological order, although it starts with a piece by Jeremiah Clarke, one generation later than Purcell. The Prince of Denmark's March is one of the best-known specimens of the genre. Then we hear the oldest piece in the programme, the Fantasia of Four Parts by Orlando Gibbons. It has not the title of voluntary, but its texture is not different from voluntaries written later in the 17th century. His music continued to be played well after his death. His son Christopher Gibbons was an important link between Orlando and the composers of the second half of the 17th century as he was the teacher of, among others, John Blow and Henry Purcell. The latter two worked closely together and there is a strong similarity between their organ compositions. Matthew Locke is a composer with a style of his own but in his keyboard music he is not as adventurous as, for instance, in his music for viol consort.

William Boyce and in particular John Stanley and William Walond belong to the best-known composers of voluntaries; the latter two published three and two collections respectively. Some of these are often played, especially Stanley's Trumpet Voluntary in D. The programme includes three pieces for double organ, meaning an organ with two manuals which allows different registrations for the right and the left hand and a dialogue between the two.

One problem for an interpreter of this repertoire is to find an appropriate instrument. Robert Costin plays the organ of Pembroke College in Cambridge which was built by Charles Quarles in 1708. Since then it has been enlarged and rebuilt, and in 1980 was reconstructed by NP Mander Ltd. It includes a number of pipes built by Bernard Smith in the late 17th century and included in the organ by Quarles. It has two manuals and a pedalboard. The temperament is not mentioned but is probably a kind of meantone, because in Blow's Cornet Voluntary in a minor we hear some pretty strong dissonances which would be hardly noticeable in an equal temperament.

Costin plays this repertoire quite well, with a nice variation in registration (which unfortunately is not specified in the booklet). I would have liked a sharper articulation in some of the pieces and more differentiation between stressed and unstressed notes, for instance in the piece by Clarke which opens the programme. However, this repertoire and the organ are a winning combination, and lovers of organ music will greatly enjoy this disc.

Johan van Veen ( 2015)

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