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William RUSSELL (1777 - 1813): "Complete Organ Voluntaries"

John Kitchen, organ

rec: July 22 - 25, 2008, Bermondsey, St James's Church
Delphian - DCD34062 (3 CDs) ( 2008) (3.06'42")

[Twelve Voluntaries, 1804] Voluntary I in C; Voluntary II in F; Voluntary III in G; Voluntary IV in D; Voluntary V in d minor; Voluntary VI in F; Voluntary VII in E flat; Voluntary VIII in B flat; Voluntary IX in a minor; Voluntary X in G; Voluntary XI in e minor; Voluntary XII in C/c minor
[Twelve Voluntaries, 1812] Voluntary I in e minor; Voluntary II in C; Voluntary III in D; Voluntary IV in a minor; Voluntary V in F; Voluntary VI in E flat; Voluntary VII in A; Voluntary VIII in b minor; Voluntary IX in B flat; Voluntary X in G; Voluntary XI in D/d minor; Voluntary XII in C
Voluntary in G

It is not easy to give an exact definition of the term voluntary. Its origin is not known, and its character can vary. In the early 17th century it was used apparently at random for any freely composed or improvised piece of organ music. Such a piece could also be called verse or fancy (derived from fantasia). But it seems voluntary was generally referring to a piece in two or more sections.

Originally voluntaries were written for use in the liturgy, but in the 18th century some voluntaries could also be played on the harpsichord. The two sets of Voluntaries by William Russell were written for the organ, but they were published as Voluntaries for the Organ or Pianoforte. The pianoforte was probably mainly added for commercial reasons, because Russell added so extensive registration markings that it is difficult to imagine how these voluntaries would sound on an early 19th-century piano. Therefore it is understandable that John Kitchen has decided to play all of them on the organ. It had been nice, though, if at least some Voluntaries had been recorded on the fortepiano as well, just to give some idea about how they would fare on such an instrument. There was enough space left on the third disc, and John Kitchen is also a fine player on other keyboard instruments than the organ.

William Russell belongs to a generation of composers who don't get much attention these days. Whereas German and Austrian composers of around 1800 are regularly played, even when they don't bear the names of Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven, their English contemporaries don't frequently appear on the concert programmes of chamber music ensembles or even keyboard players. The members of the Wesley family are among the best-known. But Russell was held in high esteem by his contemporaries. According to his obituary in The Monthly Magazine he had few equals as a performer of the organ and the pianoforte.

Russell was almost predestined to become an organist, since he came from a family of organists and organ builders. His father was an organ builder too and William Russell himself was also interested in the technique of the organ, and that resulted in him being in much demand as an organ inspector. He suggested improvements of the organ which were carried out by his father. Apart from acting as an organist at several organs he was pianist and composer at Sadler's Wells Theatre. He wrote several pantomimes, but also liturgical music - anthems and services - as well as some oratorios which were highly appreciated.

The two sets of Voluntaries which were published in 1804 and 1812 are historically interesting in several respects. As already said Russell has added precise instructions for the registration, but he also notated ornamentations, phrasing and tempi. These instructions give a clear idea of the musical taste of his time, but also about the kind of organ on which he preferred his compositions to be played. John Kitchen has chosen the organ of St James's Church which dates from 1829, but very much reflects the ideals of William Russell. Two aspects are especially useful: the compass of the manual on the great and choir allows to play Russell's Voluntaries exactly as they are written down. Also important is the presence of a pedal-board with a compass of two octaves. This is essential for a performance of Russell's music, as he seems to have been the first English organ composer who wrote independent pedal parts.

But these Voluntaries are also of musical interest in that they link the past and the future. On the one hand they are rooted in the tradition of English voluntaries, as they were written by the likes of Stanley, Walond or Nares. There are several movements where one hand is playing a solo part on one particular stop whereas the other hand provides an accompaniment, very much like, for instance, the 18th-century trumpet voluntary. The influence of Handel is particularly present in some opening movements. At the same time Russell makes use of the harmonic language of the early romantic style, and he shows his admiration for Mozart and Haydn. Notable is also the fact that most Voluntaries consist of at least one fugue, sometimes even a triple fugue.

It is also the organ which builds a link between past and future. On the one hand the organ's disposition allows it to be used as a kind of orchestra, pointing into the direction of the 19th-century symphonic organ. But the pitch (a'=432Hz) and in particular the temperament are rather old-fashioned. The latter is described in the booklet as "approximately 1/5-comma meantone" and this results in some pretty sharp dissonances in many of the Voluntaries which one is used to hear in music of the 17th century rather than in early romantic repertoire. It is just one of the many fascinating aspects of this production.

A set of three discs with organ voluntaries of a pretty little-known English composer of around 1800 may seem a little too much of a good thing. Of course, there is no need to listen to these discs at a stretch. I have listened to one disc per session, and that was no tall order at all. I admit, I am an organ nut, so others may have a little more difficulty in listening to this kind of repertoire for an hour or more. But it is made a lot easier because of the variety and the consistent quality of Russell's music which I find quite impressive. I had never heard Russell's music, and that is a serious omission. It is most interesting to hear the various influences by older and contemporary masters in his Voluntaries. But if you are not an organ aficionado you could just consume a couple of voluntaries now and then. It wouldn't surprise me at all if you would keep listening.

The use of this splendid organ greatly contributes to the enjoyment. The many possibilities of registration it offers to the interpreter creates enough variety to keep the listener awake. The recording engineer has done a brilliant job as the organ sounds in its full glory here.

John Kitchen gives just splendid performances. He mostly follows Russell's registration instructions very closely but sometimes he takes his own decisions. Some of them may be debatable, but considering the general level of playing this hardly matters. Kitchen plays with bravado and with great sensitivity. Both the grandeur of many opening movements as the more solemn pieces fare extremely well under his hands and feet. He also has written very detailed and informative programme notes, not only about Russell and his music, but also about every single piece. The booklet contains an extensive description of the organ and its history, the disposition of the organ and the registration of every Voluntary. There are also some beautiful pictures of the organ.

In short, this is an exemplary production with music which deserves to be explored, splendid performances, a beautiful organ and a booklet of the highest standard. I can only strongly recommend this release.

Johan van Veen ( 2009)

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