Proms 2017: Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove & Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Preludes (World Premières)

As will have been clear from my 38th Mix Tape back in April, my love affair with the organ has been a long and significant one. It’s an instrument that often gets overlooked in the world of contemporary music, so a definite plus of this year’s Proms season has been the opportunity to hear three new works for the instrument. They come courtesy of organist William Whitehead, who has been curating the Orgelbüchlein Project, commissioning composers to complete Bach’s Little Organ Book, which was originally planned to span the entire liturgical year, but Bach only finished 46 of the intended 164 chorale preludes. The newest additions to the project are by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Jonathan Dove and Daniel Saleeb, and were premièred by Whitehead at the Royal Albert Hall last Sunday.

Of the three Saleeb’s is the most meditative, as well as being the simplest and – at just two minutes – the shortest. His treatment of ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’ is founded on warm strings and celestes, couching the melody in a deliciously soft and squidgy syrup. The tune is also glimpsed in bright snatches that intrude and become more forceful, culminating in a central section that’s so strong it practically lurches out into the space. Saleeb then recapitulates the opening, giving it some subtle extra oomph from the 32′ pedal at the end. Short but (mostly) sweet.

Jonathan Dove seems to be tapping into an aspect of the text that accompanies his hymn tune, ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’. Being a baptismal hymn, there’s a decidedly liquid quality to Dove’s treatment of the melody. Initially positioned within undulating minimalistic arpeggiations, Dove then – just like Saleeb – rudely pushes the music forward, embellishing it with fast chord splashes that cascade down. The piece then undergoes a modified restatement of this, concluding – borrowing heavily from the twentieth century French organ school – with the tune booming on the pedals beneath a technicolor blaze. To my mind, the ending doesn’t sit quite right; there’s something about the way Dove marshals the harmony that feels a little unnatural and unconvincing. But this is a minor niggle, and the softer episodes in particular are very pretty.

However, Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s take on the great Lutheran hymn ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ sets itself apart in two important respects. First, it’s the only one of the three to sound demonstrably Germanic, and while i’m sure that’s not a condition of Whitehead’s Orgelbüchlein Project, the fact that it’s setting out to complete a project of Bach’s perhaps suggests that this quality wouldn’t go amiss. But much more importantly, it’s the only example here of a meticulous and convincing musical argument. Quite how meticulous is hinted at in the work’s somewhat terrifying subtitle, “An occasionally inverted metrically-modulated two-part canon”. But that’s by the by, as the music’s aural immediacy is absolute. It starts in an almost absurd state of po-faced formality, entrenched in the early 1700s. But in no time at all, the music around the melody – which Frances-Hoad ensures has the intense focus of a laser-beam throughout – becomes increasingly complicated, its rhythmic and harmonic language evolving at an accelerating rate. Thus, what started out sounding like an undergrad counterpoint exercise quickly becomes a demonstration of extensive contrapuntal convolution, establishing an entirely new kind of musical coherence (see right; click to expand). It’s a process that pulls one in more and more as it advances, and before you know it you’re swept into the swirling maelstrom of its formidable climax, a fitting parallel to the metaphor of solidity in the text of the hymn. If anyone thought the chorale prelude was a spent idea, this piece emphatically proves otherwise.

Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Chorale Prelude ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’ (World Première)

FLAC [23Mb]

Jonathan Dove – Chorale Prelude ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’ (World Première)

FLAC [16Mb]

Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Prelude ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’ (World Première)

FLAC [10Mb]

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Cheryl Frances-Hoad – Chorale Prelude ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’

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Jonathan Dove – Chorale Prelude ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’

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Daniel Saleeb – Chorale Prelude ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’

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