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R. James Tobin
Classical Net, December 2010

Most of the solo organ works are from early in Dickinson’s career, so are quite different from his organ concerto. The performance is by the same, highly distinguished organist, Jennifer Bate, who has received a number of British and international honors, including an honorary doctorate, Fellowship in the Royal Society of Arts, and an OBE. She performs here on three instruments located in London. Dickinson’s solo organ pieces are presented on this CD pretty much in the order of composition, and half of them are short and composed when the composer was young. The earliest, the Cambridge Postlude, was composed when Dickinson was nineteen and an Organ Scholar at Queens College, Cambridge. It is quite nice. The Preludes on Songs of Orlando Gibbons coincided with the beginning of the early music revival and have never been published. The 1955 Toccata was written for a brilliant organist at Queens; never played by Dickinson, it was revived by Bate in 1982. Meditations on Murder in the Cathedral (1958) was a reworking of incidental music for Eliot’s play performed where Dickinson was teaching. He describes the result as a “kaleidoscopic piece that juxtaposes a kind of sensual hymn with moments of violence.” 1958 was the year Dickinson went to New York, as mentioned, and subsequent works departed stylistically from the early works as a result. Study in Pianissimo, written in America, uses some serial techniques. Three Statements are improvisatory and include both wide melodic leaps and tone clusters. Carillion, as the title suggests, gives us bell sounds, but in variable meters, with “rhythms rarely heard from church steeples perhaps but developed from them just the same.” Dickinson first played it at a wedding.

There are two pieces of significant (quarter hour) length here, written eighteen years apart (1967 and 1985). Paraphrase I is in ten sections and originated in a motet by the composer. Blue Rose Variations, written after the organ concerto, I find the most interesting work in this collection. The title comes from Dickinson’s piano transcription of MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose into a blues and a classical rag. The variations combine these two forms. The final organ piece, Millenium Fanfare, intersperses the organ chords from the beginning of the organ concerto with trumpet passages.

John France
MusicWeb International, November 2009

I often say this, but it is worth repeating: Do not attempt to listen to this CD at a single sitting. Not only will the listener lose concentration, they will miss some very interesting pieces and a superb opportunity to explore a small but well-proportioned corpus of organ works.

Interestingly, the disc has been presented in chronological order, and that is how I approached it. However, it is possible to select a couple of contrasting pieces and slowly explore from that perspective. A good place to begin would be the Blue Rose Variations—more about that work later. However, I do recommend following the development of Peter Dickinson’s thought from his nineteenth year through to the Millennium Fanfare written when he was 66 years old. It is an interesting and instructive journey. Naturally, not all the works impressed me equally, but taken, as my late father used to say, in the round, this new CD is a remarkable musical document showcasing a composer and musician who has encapsulated much of the musical style of the last half of the twentieth century…None of these pieces force the listener too far out of their comfort zone. All are well within the tradition of contemporary organ music, although one or two would be rather inappropriate for the recessional at ‘St Swithuns’ or for signing the register at a wedding.

The CD opens with a fine Postlude that was one the first pieces that Dickinson wrote as organ scholar. There is nothing particularly novel here, but it represents a good example of the then prevailing English cathedral tradition of organ music. However there are one or two rather powerful dissonances to spice up the proceedings. The Prelude of 1954 is reflective: a complete contrast to the previous piece. Once again it is very much a work of its era. Dickinson suggests that it was nearly lost when he had a mass burning of his early pieces. However, his father had kept a copy in his collection of organ music! It is good that it has survived. The Postlude on ‘Adeste Fideles’ is largely predictable in its use of the tune over and against a toccata-like configuration. A great Christmas Day recessional...

Peter Dickinson notes that the three Preludes of Orlando Gibbons’s Hymn Tunes have never been published. The first two are largely introspective and the last is a sort of postlude. They nod towards Howells and owe much to the ‘early music’ revival at Cambridge in the mid-fifties, led by Thurston Dart. Truly lovely pieces that I hope will soon be published. 

The Toccata is a considerable stylistic distance from the Gibbons Preludes. It sounds fiendishly difficult. This music balances a largely complex figuration against some almost jazzy big chords. It would make a great alternative to the inevitable Widor!  

The Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral is a harder work to come to terms with. It is derived from some incidental music written for a performance of the play at Embley Park School in Hampshire. Some of the ‘string’ effects are quite simply gorgeous—yet these are offset with ‘violent’ moments that literally rip through the ‘meditation’.

The Study in Pianissimo was composed in the United States. It is a work that uses serialism for the control of much of the musical development and content. Dickinson is absolutely correct in noting that it is a ‘fragmentary’ piece. Yet in spite of the highly organised nature of the music it has a strange fascination and freedom of expression.

I have an irrational dislike of any piece called a ‘Dirge’—it goes back, I think, to some piano music by Felix Swinstead. And this piece is no exception. Dark and inward-looking, it barely admits a glimmer of light. The definition of a ‘dirge’ is “a sombre song expressing mourning or grief”, such as would be appropriate for performance at a funeral.” If anyone plays this piece at my funeral I shall haunt them for a very long time! Yet, objectively, this piece does fulfil the criteria of the definition.

The Three Statements was the only organ work of Peter Dickinson’s that I knew prior to hearing this CD. I guess I bought the music way back in the early seventies when I regularly played the organ. I seem to recall that the first piece was just about in my gift. It was never popular when I gave it an airing at Morning Service! Yet listening to these ‘Statements’ some thirty-five year later, I can see that they are good examples of organ music. They seem to hold a middle ground between improvisation and control. The three pieces use note-clusters, wide melodic leaps and chords built on fourths for their effect. They are interesting, if a little dated in their sound-world.

The Carillon is another toccata-like effort that exploits interesting off-beat rhythms. Dickinson writes that it is “a jumble of bell sounds in variable metres—rhythms rarely heard from church steeples”. However he assures the listener that the campanologist’s art lies fairly and squarely behind this work. It is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of organ music. 

Paraphrase I is quite long: it lasts over quarter of an hour and is perhaps the most involved piece presented here. Although originally written for a chamber organ that had been installed in Pershore Abbey, it is perfectly well suited to a larger instrument. The music is presented in ten very short sections with the last being a repeat of the first. Dickinson mentions that the starting point of this piece is his motet John that was a setting of a poem by Thomas Blackburn. I guess that it is effectively a ‘paraphrase’ on this music or poetic theme. It certainly holds the listener’s interest. The musical language is not particularly challenging and the whole appears unified and satisfactory. A glance at Dickinson’s catalogue reveals a Paraphrase II—but this time it is for piano!

Perhaps the most novel, if not the most important work on this CD is the Blue Rose Variations. It was written some eighteen years after the Paraphrase. The composer points out that at the time of writing this work his music was influenced “with ragtime, blues and aspects of early jazz.” The present piece achieves a balance between what may be regarded as secular and as sacred. Certainly I doubt that it could be played at High Mass, but it is certainly not out of place in the organ loft. It is an excellent example of how different styles of music can be successfully fused.

The latest piece on this CD is the Millennium Fanfare, which was quite naturally written in 1999! It was first performed at Aldeburgh Parish Church by Keith Bond. I have never heard Dickinson’s Organ Concerto (1971), but he suggests in the sleeve notes that the Fanfare “looks back to the awe-inspiring chords” at the start of that earlier work. A jazzy section that complements these massive chords is derived from some form of appropriation of the ‘musical’ letters found in the name Aldeburgh. It makes an excellent conclusion to this largely interesting and often impressive recital.

…Jennifer Bate has given a sympathetic and convincing performance of all these pieces—they were recorded over a period of a quarter of a century. The organs sound excellent and appear to be ideally suited for the pieces chosen for them. Naxos has provided a specification for all three instruments. For the cognoscenti, St John’s Duncan Terrace is a 1963 Walker Organ, St Dominic’s Priory is also a Walker and St James Muswell Hill was built by Harrison and Harrison.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, October 2009

The chronological running order that this disc espouses takes one on a most remarkable aural journey. It begins with apprentice works cast securely in the Anglican organ tradition, through visionary experiences in America, and thence to a kind of pluralist expansion in which technique and ambition are held in perfect equipoise. That is, at least, one way of looking at this highly diverting and engaging disc, which happily gives us Peter Dickinson’s complete works for organ.

One can feel the filtered influence of Howells, in particular, in the earliest works. It’s true of A Cambridge Postlude though the composer does note the ‘bluesy figure’ in the pedal part. It certainly has confidence and élan from a 19 year old. The Prelude is by contrast a reflective work, conveyed with quiet intimacy and concentration by Jennifer Bate, before we re-gather to experience the brilliant toccata that is the Postlude on “Adeste Fideles”. The Gibbons Preludes have remained unplayed for half a century but that’s no reflection of their musical status. Once again Howells is an influence one feels, especially in the case of Song 46 whilst Song 34 is the most extrovert and celebratory with delicious false relations and—a sheer coincidence, surely—a hint of Malcolm Arnold in ‘whooping’ form.

There’s more evidence of the strong demands he makes on his executant in the Toccata of 1955, a sonorous and powerful opus. More personal, obviously, is the Meditation on “Murder in the Cathedral” which is a spooky affair, pregnant with portent, raptly atmospheric, and lit by some suitably deft dynamics. From his American period comes The Study in Pianissimo with its serial basis and this prefaces the decidedly gloomy Dirge. This last incidentally, as with a number of other pieces, is being heard here in first ever recordings.

The second of the Three Statements hints strongly at the powerful jazz syncopations to come but before these are fully unleashed there’s the terrific Carillon to experience. This bell study is a festive feast, exciting and vibrant, with tremendous colour and sense of texture as well as control of volume and a strong sense of spatial separation between the various bells evoked. The two longest works are Paraphrase I which was written in 1967 and then Blue Rose Variations which followed many years later in 1985. Paraphrase I is a work that coalesces amplitude with an almost ’chamber’ delicacy and refinement of articulation—for example the second section [track 16]—and that varies dynamics and moods between the thoughtful and zesty scherzo. It’s highly accomplished and makes for pleasurable listening. Of a more extrovert character is the Blue Rose Variations. Here we find the full flowering of Dickinson’s immersion in older Jazz forms, and he utilises Edward MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose with increasing visceral effect. The opening put me in mind of Fats Waller’s later organ recordings made in London (on EMI’s Compton organ), though tinged with a soupçon of cocktail hour blues. The Fairground meets the Varsity Rag in this variational pleasure ground, full of contrasts and fun and ebullience. There are some strongly ‘comping’ left hand chords [track 30] which have an almost boppish urgency—and then a resplendent ending to conclude a work of good humour and freedom; freedom, that is, from unwanted academic expectations and constraints. Greybeards need not apply; the rest of us can queue.

But just to show that not all is rosy in the garden we end with the brief but cataclysmic Millennium Fanfare—in which Sturm und Drang meets Til Eulenspiegel, and the thing ends in a blaze of Kubrick. Overwhelming!

The recording has been gauged to perfection—three organs in three locations, so it clearly demanded expertise in setting up. Talking of expertise Jennifer Bate proves an interpreter of remarkably persuasive skill; sensitive to dynamics, to colouration, to refinement and when necessary, explosively controlled concentration.

In every way then this is a treasurable disc and full of variety.

Arnold Whittall
Gramophone, July 2009

A fascinating journey through Peter Dickinson’s output for solo organ

British organ music has never been just Anglican organ music, but the most prominent composers of it have often emerged from college chapels and cathedrals. As a Cambridge organ scholar, Peter Dickinson read music at the university in the 1950s, and a safe passage might have been predicted to Salisbury, St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey. The student pieces that begin this fascinating disc demonstrate the expected ability to identify with the musical worlds of Vaughan Williams and Herbert Howells, though one piece at least—the Postlude on Adeste fideles—shows signs of a more abrasive idiom, as if Ives is waiting in the wings. The Meditation on Murder in the Cathedral is another, quite different kind of early acknowledgement that the dissonance and a sense of disquiet so common in contemporary concert music by 1958 could be no less relevant to the organ loft.

When Dickinson exchanged Cambridge for New York in the late 1950s, that potential for responding to changes taking place in the wider musical world began to be realised with interest. The organ works from the 1960s which followed his return to the UK reveal the edgy, angular perspectives stemming from Dickinson’s familiarity with composers as different as Copland and Cage. However, neither Three Statements nor Paraphrase 1 are pale imitations of such composers—nor, for that matter, of other Dickinson enthusiasms such as Satie and Berners. Only with the exuberant, ebullient absorption of blues and rag music found in Blue Rose Variations (1985) do specific stylistic associations emerge, and this piece remains an invigorating blast of fresh air, a kind of secular equivalent to Messiaen’s ecstatic spiritual dances.

The Dickinson journey is traced here in supremely well articulated and strongly characterised performances by Jennifer Bate. The three organs involved—mainly the resplendent Walker at St John the Evangelist, Islington—are recorded with maximum fidelity and no sense of distortion, even in the loudest passages. The disc is a fine birthday tribute to a composer who has escaped the confines of the predictable without ever ceasing to communicate.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, March 2009

Born in England in 1934, Peter Dickinson has followed the varied career of composer, organist, pianist, writer and teacher, his complete solo organ works contained in this one disc. Played in chronological order, it documents Dickinson’s experimenting with the vast range of sonorities that the organ can produce with pieces spread over forty-four years. He began as an audacious nineteen year old with the brilliant showpiece A Cambridge Postlude, before moving to three Preludes on songs by Orlando Gibbons, which the composer now recognises as being more akin to Herbert Howells. Essentially a miniaturist, his 1955 Toccata is a masterpiece of economy of scale, the dynamic extremes requiring considerable agility from the performer. Dickinson does not explain the two large gaps that punctuate the last three scores, Paraphrase I dabbling briefly in atonality and it was not until eighteen years later that his most commercially attractive Blue Rose Variations was completed. Dedicated to Jennifer Bate and using as its thematic material Dickinson’s blues slant on Edward MacDowell’s To a Wild Rose, it is a fun piece that demands real virtuosity. The dedicatee plays the disc’s thirty-two tracks which she has recorded over the period 1982 to 2007, the vast majority being in world premiere recordings, The performances and sound quality is stunning and probably the best organ sound we have heard from Naxos. Hugely entertaining and very highly recommended.

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