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Tim Rogerson
Cathedral Music, November 2012

Like César Franck and Herbert Howells, Kenneth Leighton had a distinctive compositional style such that his music is almost always recognisable as his and the music presented here is no exception. The most well-known music on this disc will be the Three Fantasias on Hymn Tunes (in this case St Columba, Veni Emmanuel, and Hanover). Less well known will be Et resurrexit and Missa de Gloria. The former was written in 1966 and is (in the composer’s own words) “an attempt to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the Resurrection”. The Mass setting was commissioned for the Dublin International Organ Festival of 1980 and is based on plainsong chants of the twelfth-century Sarum rite. The choice of Blackburn Cathedral’s exciting Walker organ for this music is inspired and Greg Morris gives a committed performance which catches the mood of each individual movement. © 2012 Cathedral Music

Barry Forshaw
Classical CD Choice, February 2012

Leighton was one of Britain’s most significant 20th century composers, and his organ and choral work deserve the currency his orchestral music is now receiving. Greg Morris, Associate Organist at London’s Temple Church, is a persuasive advocate for the music, though it is unlikely to gain great currency. © 2012 Classical CD Choice

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, December 2011

Overdue exposure for the marvellous music of Leighton. Organist Greg Morris an assured and exciting guide to this inspired music. Superb Naxos engineering catches the Blackburn Cathedral organ in full throated glory. © MusicWeb International

Christopher Nickol
Gramophone, September 2011

Enduring organ works in an intensely atmospheric recording

Kenneth Leighton’s organ works definitely stand the test of time with their masterful contrapuntal textures, colourful chromatic but tonal harmony, and skilled organ-writing. One admires his clever use of a 12th-century plainchant in the Missa de Gloria—an organ Mass as fine as the ones by Couperin and Messiaen. Curiously, the theme of Et resurrexit is virtually identical with the melody from the second section of Vaughan Williams’s Flos campi, but again Leighton treats it in a variety of ingenious ways. It’s fascinating to hear his individual approach to familiar melodies in three of the Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes and it’s a pity that Greg Morris did not record the other three—there was room on the CD.

Another possible cause for regret is the choice of Blackburn Cathedral as the recording venue. Certainly, the 1969 four-manual, 61-stop Walker organ has the appropriate neo-classical colours and a powerful tutti for this repertoire. However, the pipe work is placed on four platforms either side of the chancel arch, so the organ’s tones are projected in different directions. Combined with the cathedral’s generous acoustic, the result is an occasional lack of clarity in Leighton’s polyphony and Greg Morris’s phrasing and articulation. This is a shame, as Morris gives very good performances and he’s well served by the Naxos recording. If you can live with a sound that has intense atmosphere, sometimes at the expense of clarity, then this CD can be recommended to lovers of Leighton’s marvellous organ music.

William J Gatens
American Record Guide, September 2011

…the strings sound rather chilly to me, but that often suits the severity of Leighton’s quieter writing, as does the plaintive quality of the soft reeds. Morris’s playing is authoritative and more than equal to Leighton’s virtuosic demands. Furthermore, this is clearly an instrument the artist knows well and can use to the greatest effect.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

Nick Barnard
MusicWeb International, July 2011

First a confession. When I requested this disc of music by Kenneth Leighton I assumed that the Missa de Gloria was going to be a choral work. As those more knowledgeable than I will already know it is in fact an extended solo organ work based on the 12th Century chant for Easter Day found in the Sarum rite.

The rehabilitation of Kenneth Leighton’s music on compact disc in recent times has been one of the most gratifying. I suspect that on his death in 1988 the received wisdom was of an academic who composed. But with discs such as this and the series of orchestral works on Chandos in particular he is emerging from the shadow of that faint praise as a composer of real and enduring stature. As will be clear, I was familiar with none of these works before receiving this disc but what a fabulous discovery it has proved to be. On every level, musically and technically, I have rarely enjoyed a recital of organ music more. The organ of Blackburn Cathedral seems ideally suited to the sinewy power of Leighton’s writing and organist Greg Morris produces a bravura display of thrilling impact. Credit too to producer David Gibbs and engineer David Hinitt who have struck an ideal balance between the visceral excitement of a big instrument playing at full tilt but placing in a church acoustic without losing internal detail. It really is one of the finest recordings of an organ I have heard in a long time.

A quick trawl through the catalogue shows that there is a 3-disc set on Priory of the complete organ works played by Dennis Townhill but that is at full-price. So for a single disc recital and at bargain price this disc provides an ideal introduction to Leighton’s compositions for solo organ. There is a cunning through-thread to the programming here. All three works are based on germ-like material from which the works develop and evolve. This is a compositional trick that Leighton often uses but here the germ is provided by pre-existing hymn tunes in the case of the Six Fantasies or the plain song chant mentioned before in the Missa de Gloria. The use of existing sacred musical material makes these works extended latter-day chorale-preludes and part of Leighton’s genius is the seamless way he is able to fuse ancient with modern and his own powerfully individual musical identity to clearly recognisable motifs. The disc opens with the wonderfully theatrical Et Resurrexit of 1966. Organist Greg Morris provides a succinct but informative liner-note and in this he quotes Leighton’s description of the work as an attempt; “to give musical expression to the individual’s struggle for belief in the miracle of the resurrection”. This is a substantial seventeen minute work which is broken down into three rather dry-sounding sections; Theme, Fantasy and Fugue. Morris is excellent both in the note but more so in the performance at articulating how Leighton takes a simple four note motif which although original (I assume) has the stepwise simplicity of a chant. All too often when listening to organs I find myself unable to follow the musical argument lost as it is in a general wash of acoustic and registration. Morris is especially adept at leading the ear with his judicious use of the stops available on the Blackburn organ so that the line is never lost. There is a rather lovely picture of the organ case included in the liner—it is a modern instrument originally built in 1969 by J.W Walker and Sons but then rebuilt by Wood of Huddersfield in 2002. This is clearly an instrument in excellent condition—the reeds are excitingly plangent but in tune with the pedal powerful and full but without that annoying non-specific pitch ‘tubbiness’ that afflicts so many organs. Time and again throughout the disc Morris is excellent at exploiting the entire dynamic range available to him which makes for compelling listening whether loud or soft. Another facet of Leighton’s technique which impresses me so much is the way he is able to use rather academic processes in his work without sacrificing their emotional or musical impact. On a very simplistic level I hear this work as the progression from doubt to certainty or indeed death to resurrection. There is a cumulative movement towards the final thrilling pages which is both utterly convincing and very moving. Two other features of Morris’s playing that particularly impressed me; his gradation of dynamics is both very skilled and very subtle. Not for him the simple dynamic extremes. This is of particular use when Leighton builds a movement over several minutes—by pacing his dynamics so carefully he reinforces the musical architecture as well as making the final climatic release so rewarding. His other skill is an ideal sense of playing to the acoustic. He judges to perfection how long to hold or delay chords to allow them maximum impact in the performance space.

Of the Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes Op.72 only numbers 4-6 are included here. By the nature of their titles and function these are more self-contained works but they are superb in their concentrated energy and focus. Again Leighton follows a Bachian process of using the existing Hymn-melodies as a type of cantus firmus from which to develop the implications of the melody both musically and spiritually. I imagine these must be very popular works with organists—the toccata-like No.6 Hanover cries out to be used as a recessional. The main work is the big forty minute Missa de Gloria that caused my initial confusion. Unlike the Fantasies which use the hymn melodies as the clearly identifiable mother lode Leighton takes the previously mentioned Sarum Chant more as inspirational source than musical material—although at points in the score he does notate their specific use. There is an air of the austere and rapt about this work that is immensely impressive. This is one of those rare and rather wonderful pieces that is at once both ancient and modern. Leighton’s musical language sits on the cusp between chromatic tonality and serial modernism. The level of dissonance is high but this gives the music a flashing brilliance that is very compelling. Yet at the heart of the work is a devout sense of meditation and faith that belongs to a much earlier age. Again, I was struck by the parallels that Leighton achieves by the fusion of the music of the chant with the spirit of the text of the various sections of the mass. I would see this work as an extended sequence of mediations on the text of the liturgy set to the music of the Mass. Again enormous credit to Morris for the sustained concentration of his playing. In normal circumstances I am not a huge aficionado of organ music but I have been thoroughly converted by the conviction of the playing here. It goes way beyond simple technical address—which Morris clearly possesses in spades—to something that transcends the ‘how’ of playing and gets to the essential ‘why’. Much of this music is joyful without being light-hearted, ecstatic without being light-headed. If this music makes such an impression on disc in live performance by Morris it must be overwhelming.

Naxos have a winner of a disc here and more to the point a winning team of exceptional performer, instrument cum location, and production team. It is to be hoped that this will lead to further Leighton discs and indeed to more recitals of the 20th French and English music mentioned in Morris’s biography.

Brian Wilson Download Roundup
MusicWeb International, June 2011

The organ that I knew in my home town of Blackburn has been replaced and the replacement rebuilt since I moved away. I don’t know what my old music teacher, who was the cathedral organist, would say about how it now sounds—or, indeed, about the music of Kenneth Leighton, which wasn’t on the curriculum back then. For me it produces just the right sound for Leighton’s organ music. I knew that it’s a fine instrument for Alkan’s organ music…and I imagine that that it would sound equally well for Messiaen. Indeed, I hear more than a touch of the influence of the French organ school in Leighton’s music, though it’s far from imitative. This new recording joins Naxos’s equally recommendable disc of Leighton’s choral music, An Easter Sequence (Naxos 8.555795).

David Denton
David's Review Corner, May 2011

I would join many others in the UK who describe Kenneth Leighton as one of the most neglected British 20th century composers. Though he wrote a wide range of music, he was eminent in the field of organ and choral music having started out as a cathedral chorister. His advance education came at Oxford University before travelling to Rome to study composition with Petrassi. Financially supported by appointments as a university lecturer he spent the last seventeen years as Professor of Music in Edinburgh before his early death in 1988 at the age of fifty-nine. Though he is regarded as a British composer, his major organ works followed very much in the tradition of the great French organist-composers. Two shorter works open the disc, the hushed tones of the initial movement of Et Resurrexit growing in intensity as the score progresses to reach a final Fugue. Only the last three of Six Fantasies on Hymn Tunes are included—St Columba, Veni Emmanuel and Hanover, and you could well imagine Veni Emmanuel coming from one of the famous French improvisors. The Missa de Gloria given the added name, Dublin Festival Mass, was composed in 1980 for the Dublin International Organ Festival, and uses as its base the twelfth-century chant for Easter Day from the Sarum Rite. The result was a massive virtuoso showpiece lasting around forty minutes. The outstanding soloist is the young organist, Greg Morris, who, like Leighton, was born in the industrial heartland of northern England. He plays the very large modern instrument in Blackburn Cathedral, not far distant from his birthplace. He and the organ meet every challenge Leighton presents with considerable brio and technical brilliance. How one wishes all organ recordings could be as technically superb as this. Fervently recommended.

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