Review of The Well-Tempered Clavier
J.S. Bach composed Das Wohltemperierte Klavier as two sets, with the first 24 completed in 1722 when Bach was 37 and the second some 20 years later. It was primarily intended as a teaching aid or, as Bach stated in his preface, ‘for the use and profit of the musical youth desirous of learning, as well as for the pastime of those already skilled in this study’. It was written for an unspecified keyboard instrument and numerous recordings have appeared over the years on a wide range of instruments including harpsichord, clavichord, piano and, more recently, organ. The English organist Robert Costin is well known to the musical fraternity in New Zealand, having held assistant organist posts at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland, before returning to the United Kingdom as Assistant Director of Music at Blackburn Cathedral and continuing his musical career. Costin is also noted for his recent recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Trio Sonatas for Organ. For this recording of the ’48’ he chose the fine 42-rank Metzler baroque organ at Trinity College, Cambridge that is ideally suited for this music. This four CD set is as much a showcase for this beautifully voiced and versatile instrument as they are for the genius of JSB. Costin’s tempi have been carefully chosen to enable the fast-moving passages to remain crisp and precise. Appropriate microphone placement of his well-articulated playing has also ensured a high degree of clarity. Not only does his sensitive and imaginative choice of registrations complement each prelude and fugue admirably but the chapel’s lively acoustic also enhances the overall sound. The accompanying CD booklet is very informative and attractively produced, with an introduction to the piece, organ specifications and short notes about each track. In my opinion this new interpretation of the ’48’ will make an excellent addition to any organ enthusiast’s collection.
NZ Organ News
Review of The Well-Tempered Clavier
An intriguing aspect of J S Bach’s solo instrumental music is that much was written for an unspecified “keyboard”. Today, the keyboard of choice is generally the piano or harpsichord, or occasionally the clavichord. In a series produced by the enterprising Stone Records, Robert Costin interprets Bach’s greatest works on the organ. Following on from the Goldberg Variations and the Trio Sonatas, Stone Records has now released The Well-Tempered Clavier (WTC) in a four-disc set. Robert Costin’s instrument is the beautiful Metzler at Trinity College, Cambridge, built in 1975 but incorporating ranks of Father Smith pipes from 1694 and 1708. Organ versions of WTC are few and far between (those by Christoph Bossert, Frédéric Desenclos, and Bernard Lagacé are the only ones I’m aware of) so I listened to this with some interest. As usual, Costin plays accurately and with sensitivity, and his performance is beautifully recorded. The set is nicely packaged with informative booklet. Even if you’re sold on one of the classic piano interpretations, this version is well worth a listen.
The Organ Club Journal
Review of The Well-Tempered Clavier
This project has clearly been a labour of love for Robert Costin, and one admires his consistently excellent playing. Any new recording of the ’48’ for solo organ is to be welcomed, especially with an outstanding instrument. The three-manual, 42-stop Metzler organ of Trinity College, Cambridge, is magnificent; combining it with the chapel’s warm but clear acoustic provides the ideal venue for this repertoire … There are some wonderful colours on these CDs: the Vox Humana in Book 1’s E major Prelude and the Dulcian in Book 1’s B minor Prelude are delightful. Equally enjoyable is the telling use of the Pedal Posaune towards the end of some of the Book 2 fugues … Listening to these CDs has been an invigorating and stimulating experience. Above all, we can rejoice again in the glorious music springing from Bach’s compositional genius.
JS Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier BWV 846-891 ☆☆☆☆☆
This is an absolutely outstanding set of records which should form part of the library of every enthusiast for Bach's music. There have been recordings in the past of the '48' in which various single Preludes and Fugues have been played on a variety of instruments, including organ, but offhand I cannot recall a complete '48' on disc played throughout on the organ. We may be sure that Bach himself did, at various points in his life, and perhaps not only at the Thomaskirche. Robert Costin, in this beautifully recorded series of performances, makes the strongest possible case for this imperishable masterpiece to be included as a totality within the organ repertoire.
Of course, for those familiar with these individual Preludes and Fugues from daily practice, Costin's tempos and perhaps registration might not invariably meet with universal agreement, but no musician, familiar with this Old Testament of music, would cavil at the accomplishment with which Costin has mastered his task.
It must have been a remarkably satisfying experience to have undertaken this series of recordings, and one can only urge this set of records on everyone who cares about music as one of the finest manifestations of the human creative spirit of the last half-millennium.
One of the great challenges the '48' poses to the recording engineer is the contrapuntal nature of Bach's writing—and not solely in the Fugues themselves—and how this maybe somewhat obscured in the ambience of a church, whose acoustic will naturally be more reverberant than that of a large room or recital hall. But one has to say that producer and engineer, Paul and Thomas Bryan, have accomplished their tasks with considerable skill—so much so, in fact, that combined with Costin's musicianship, one often forgets that the organ was not necessarily the first instrument in Bach's mind on composing and completing these works.
As just one example, the performance and recording of the C minor from Book 1 is an astonishingly musical and technical success—so much so, that on playing these records (and not the only time) I had to hear the performance again, to confirm the wholly convincing impression it conveys.
Costin's registrations throughout could not be better judged, and the range of timbres available from the Trinity College Metzler Söhne Organ are both fully explored and applied with discretion and apposite musicianship.
This is a wonderful set of records, a true achievement of the modern gramophone, and is most enthusiastically recommended. It has been a rare pleasure to review this release.
The Organ Magazine
Feb– Apr 2017
Benjamin Dale: Sonata in D minor for Organ (1900)
edited by Robert Costin
Fitzjohn Music Publications
Here is a truly extraordinary—and most important—contribution to the English Organ Repertoire, and is recommended with all possible enthusiasm.
Benjamin Dale (1885–1943) was, as Robert Costin’s fascinating Editorial Notes explain, one of the most gifted of all British composers of his generation—a generation that included Arnold Bax and York Bowen … One must commend Fitzjohn’s enterprise and judgement in issuing this very important publication, and Robert Costin’s editorship is a model of clarity and sympathetic musical judgement, and his introductory notes are invaluable. As a consequence, we must hope that this fine work, unknown and relatively undiscovered for over a century, will come to take its rightful place in the English organ music repertory.
The Organ Magazine
Nov 2016–Jan 2017
Bach's Trio Sonatas ☆☆☆☆☆
Robert Costin's new record is highly successful. The Six Trio Sonatas conveniently 'fit' a CD, so it is valuable to have them 'all in one place' so to speak, more so in such well-conceived and executed performances as these. In terms of tempos and registration, I have no complaint, but what makes this recording additionally stand out is Costin's admirable phrasing, which points the nature of Bach's invention so well. The clarity of the slightly recessed sound in the recording is an added bonus, and I would cite the Adagio and Allegro movements of the E flat major Sonata, BWV 525 as being amongst the best examples of this new release.
The Organ Magazine
Bach's Trio Sonatas
Robert Costin is well known to New Zealand audiences, having worked as the Assistant Director of Music at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul and later as interim Director of Music of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland—not to mention the fine recordings he has made here in New Zealand and the countless recitals over the years.
It was with some trepidation that I loaded this CD into my player—this is music I know so well and adore as a performer myself, and hearing music that has become such an integral part of my own performing and teaching career performed by someone else can be quite an alienating experience. My anxiety increased when the puritanical side of me noted that sonatas were presented out of their sequential order—the disc opens with Sonata 5 in C major BWV 529 instead of Sonata 1 as you might expect.
My fears were quickly allayed on hearing the first few bars of the Allegro - my pulse quickened as I was swept away in the astounding music and Costin’s virtuosic performance. Bach’s trio sonatas are, in my experience, amongst the most challenging but equally rewarding music an organist can play—maintaining the three independent voices requires immense physical control and mental ability. Throughout this disc Robert always maintains composure and command of the instrument, occasionally pushing the boundaries of being out of control—but for me this adds to the drama of the music, and brings you closer to the experience of a live performance.
Interestingly, my favourite recording of the Trio Sonatas is not performed on the organ—but by string players—the recording by London Baroque on the BIS label. Hearing the music performed by three musicians instead of one organist really challenged the way I view and perform the works, and reshaped my own phrasing and interpretation. It is rare to find an organ recording that defines each voice as a separate entity as clearly as when performed by individual musicians—but Costin succeeds admirably in doing this. The ever important feeling of dance in the music of Bach is present throughout.
The quality of the audio recording and production is equally superb— the balance of direct sound from the organ to the acoustics of the room is perfectly judged. As a recording engineer myself I am always faced with the tough decision about how much extraneous noise should be removed from the audio—it is now relatively simple to remove the sound of page turns, car alarms etc. from the recording with sophisticated software. I am delighted that the engineer didn’t feel the urge to remove the sound of page turns, coughs and pedal noise from this recording, making the listening experience that much more human and visceral.
In writing this I tried hard to find some fault— no matter how small—to make this review more balanced. The best I can say is that the performances are not perfect and air-brushed recordings—but this only makes them in turn feel more intimate, exhilarating and impassioned. I heartily recommend this CD—even if you already own numerous recordings of these works!
NZ Organ News
Bach's Trio Sonatas
This superb recording might be considered as Cambridge’s equivalent of Robert Quinney’s acclaimed recording of these pieces at The Queen’s College, Oxford. Costin’s playing is consistently excellent; articulation is clear and sensitive, tempi finely balanced, and the character of each movement is beautifully conveyed. Quick movements sparkle with energy and wit, while the slow movements have a gentle but insistent quality that holds the listener’s attention throughout. The order of performance works well, offering contrasts that would not have been apparent in a numerical ordering. Sonata no.5 make a fine opening; the crispness and vitality of the broken-chord figures at the beginning of the first movement draw the listener in immediately. Costin’s performance of Sonata no.6 is a particular delight; the sprightly tempo, bright registration and precise articulation create a luminosity that belies its technical complexity. The slow movement is given a spacious, almost plaintive account, while the jaunty angularity of the final movement is conveyed with subtle humour. The Pembroke College organ is an inspired choice; the clarity and brightness of its flue stops suits the fast movements superbly, while the judicious use of the tremulant in some slow movements is most effective. Overall, the organ has a gentleness that helps capture the intimacy of these wonderful works. Costin’s programme notes are informative and well-written and the booklet includes the specification of the instrument and a photograph showing its elegant situation in the Chapel.
Bach's Trio Sonatas
This is the second organ recital disc for Stone Records by Robert Costin, Director of Music at Ardingly College, the first being the Goldberg Variations. Once again, Costin plays the Pembroke College, Cambridge, organ, a period instrument containing some Father Smith pipework and reconstructed by Mander in 1980. It is eminently suited to the repertoire. Bach’s Trio Sonatas, written for Wilhelm Friedemann to instruct him in organ playing and composition, demand equality and independence of hands and feet if their musical riches are to be fully realised. This, Costin largely achieves with a strong and sensitive interpretation. I found this a most enjoyable performance.
The Organ Club
Bach's Trio Sonatas ☆☆☆☆
This one is most enjoyable and catches the spirit of this music very well. Robert Costin generally chooses lively tempi and often sparkling registrations for outer movements, with good clarity and balance … slow movements use the beautiful flutes of the Pembroke organ … Excellent recording quality and notes … this disc certainly demonstrates his fine musicianship.
Choir and Organ
Bach Goldberg Variations
According to Johann Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, the Goldberg Variations were written in response to a commission from the Russian ambassador to the electoral court of Saxony, Count Kaiserling, who often stopped in Leipzig. On one trip he brought along his young harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, so that he could study with Bach. The Count said he had insomnia and needed music to be played when he stayed awake at night. Evidently the nobleman was quite pleased with the pieces Bach wrote for him because he gave the composer a golden goblet filled with 100 Louis d’or . Currently, the approximate value of the gold in the coins would be just under $32,000. Although the variations were written for harpsichord, organists play them as well. On this recording British organist Robert Costin, a graduate of the University of Cambridge, plays them brilliantly on the Pembroke College Organ. The organ was originally built by Charles Quarles in 1708 and has been enlarged and rebuilt many times. In 1980, N. P. Mander Ltd. reconstructed it in order to recreate a late 17th- or early 18th-century English instrument. From the recorded sound of Costin’s playing the Goldberg Variations on this organ, they did an excellent job. The Goldberg's, BWV 988, which consists of an aria and 30 variations, was first published in 1741. The variations are derived from the bass line of the aria. Every third variation is a canon except at the end, where the last one is replaced by a quodlibet. Other types of variations are heard between the canons, including Baroque dances, a fughetta, a French overture, some ornate arias, and quite a few lively arabesques. Three variations are in G Minor; the rest are in G Major. At the end of the 30 variations, Bach wrote “Aria da Capo e fine,” asking the performer to return to the beginning and play the aria again before concluding the performance.
At the beginning, Costin plays the aria softly with studied detail, letting Pembroke’s acoustics waft the sound to our ears. Then he cuts loose and lets the catchy rhythm of the first variation bound across to us. Each of Bach’s variations is unique, and Costin plays all of them with a wide range of tempos, musical color, and dynamics. In the slower variations, we can let the cool, green, and violet tones of this historic organ cleanse our aural palates before we listen to the more highly decorated variations at which Costin also excels. There are several comparable recordings, the latest of which was released in 2010 on JAV Recordings by Stephen Tharp, who plays the Fritts Organ at St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Columbus, Ohio. His technique is excellent and his tone colors varied, but his performance is only easily available on MP3 at the moment. Jean Gillou made an excellent recording for Dorian that was released in 1988, but the sound is not up to date and he does not play all the repeats. Elena Barshai recorded it for Brilliant Classics in 2007 on the Organ of St Peter and Paul’s church in Vilmergen, Switzerland. Her playing is expressive but she does not seem to have as great a variety of tone color as Costin. I really enjoyed the Stone Records disc and I think our readers will as well.
Bach Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
If Glenn Gould's hum-along version of the Goldberg's, or Rosalyn Tureck's stricter ones set the standard, Bach's 32 movements are resilient enough to survive transcription for everything from accordion to the harp. The organ should be a more natural home, especially given the muddy boundaries between Baroque keyboard repertoires, and it is perhaps surprising that the Goldberg's are not performed on the organ more often.
Robert Costin certainly persuades us that they should be, in an almost completely convincing account that sparkles, surprises (especially with the sudden arrival of the tremulant in variation 6!), stirs and moves. As a performance, it is without fault. There is much more here of the warm humanity that characterises the best Bach performances than in, say, Jean Guillou's 2007 version. The question for many will be how well the Goldberg's fare on the organ in the first place. Given that the goal of the 1980 N.P. Mander revamp of the Pembroke College instrument, which still has Father Smith pipework, was to create an instrument in the style of roughly Bach's time (albeit an English one), it is not really possible for this recording to be jarringly anachronistic. However, there is wisely no quixotic attempt to simulate a specifically German Baroque sound.
Costin told Organists' Review that his goals were to enable "the work to speak clearly and not be too fussy with unnecessary changes of colour", and indeed added: "When I play it on a large Romantic organ I use the full resources as I'm sure Bach would have done. My use of the pedals is quite sparing in this version but I sometimes use more depending on the acoustic, balance, etcetera."
Not all of the variations are equally suited to the organ, with some of the faster-moving music such as 20, 23 and fugal section of 16 feeling a little unidiomatic (although the opening of 16, the prelude to the fugue as it were, is splendid).
Others, for example 19, could have been composed for the instrument; Costin, in his exceptionally interesting programme notes, comments on the resemblance of 13 to an organ chorale prelude and one can also hear that echo elsewhere, for instance in 25. They could work perfectly well in liturgical use.
All in all, a superb recording which may become my default Goldberg. And no humming.
Bach Goldberg Variations ☆☆☆☆
The Goldberg's on organ are often not convincing, but Costin manages to produce a very compelling and musical interpretation, with some ravishing sounds from the Pembroke organ. This is certainly the best I have heard on the organ, underlining the closeness of organ and harpsichord for Bach, and strongly recommended.
Choir and Organ
Great Goldbergs natural fit for organ ☆☆☆☆☆
Organist Robert Costin is well known in New Zealand and, indeed, was here recently playing the Goldberg Variations. And here is the recording he made of Bach's great work in 2012, on the organ of Pembroke College, Cambridge. We have recordings of the Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord, modern piano, strings, jazz group, and even with a consort of viols, but none, as far as I can see, on the organ. Bach was a fine organist so surely he would have expected the Goldbergs to be performed on the organ, and Robert Costin proves that it works extremely well. The crispness one gets from the harpsichord is not there but it rarely seems to matter. This great set of variations sounds as natural on the organ as any of the works that Bach composed for the instrument.
With the Pembroke organ sounding superb, Costin's registrations very convincing and the sound extremely natural, this is, for all Bach lovers, a self-recommending release.
The Dominion Post
27th August 2013
J S Bach: Goldberg Variations BWV 988 ☆☆☆☆☆
This is a remarkably successful record. Bach's Goldberg Variations were composed for an instrument with two manuals, but is nowadays almost always heard played on a modern concert grand piano which of necessity means alterations to Bach's keyboard layout. Not that Bach would have minded—especially the delightful small instrument of Pembroke College, which one is sure had Bach been able to hear this recording would have earned enthusiastic endorsement. As with some of the '48', I am certain that Bach played some of those pieces on the organ (the sustaining pedal in the strettos of certain fugues gives that particular game away) and I am equally certain that it is more than likely that either he or one of his sons played the Goldberg Variations on an instrument not a million miles removed in timbre from such as we have here. It is certainly more authentic than a grand piano, and one must also bear in mind that the harpsichord was not a sacred instrument at all—in Lutheran churches, it was effectively banned, and only permitted on such occasions as when a failure of the organ would mean no accompaniment during services. So if you wish to play the Goldberg Variations in a church, only an organ approaches authenticity, so no-one need feel discomfited by hearing the music on an organ. What they might feel somewhat discomfited about is that their instrumentalist may not be as fine as Robert Costin, whose approach to this masterpiece is wholly admirable. The clarity of his playing is admirable, as is the recording quality. All in all, a fascinating and, in its way, important release.
The Organ Magazine
Album review: Robert Costin, Bach: Goldberg Variations (Stone) ☆☆☆☆☆
Though nowadays played on all manner of instruments, from harp to accordion, the Goldberg Variations was originally written for harpsichord. However, hearing this masterful performance by Robert Costin on the Pembroke College organ, it's impossible to imagine that Bach, an accomplished organist, didn't compose it on such an instrument. Right from the wistful charm of the opening “Aria”, the organ's timbre is a model of acoustical grace, a perfect union of instrument and space, and as Costin launches into the Variations, its full majesty is revealed in rich, satisfying sonorities that build to an epic climax with the “Variatio 30 –Quodlibet”. A marvellous, engrossing performance by a true master.
2nd August 2013
Robert Costin's rewarding organ exploration of the Goldberg Variations
TGIF recital at St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington
Robert Costin (organ)
Bach’s Goldberg Variations – a selection
On one of his frequent return visits to New Zealand (he was assistant organist at St Paul’s in the mid 1990s), Robert Costin made time to play at one of the cathedral’s Friday lunchtime recitals that enjoy the title TGIF (Thank God it’s Friday is the full liturgical title).
He has created an organ adaptation of the Goldberg Variations, which he has recorded on the organ of Pembroke College, Cambridge. That is a small chapel organ of two manuals and pedal board; the 1708 organ has been considerably modified but the most recent work on it has restored it significantly.
The unregenerate, such as this reviewer, finds great pleasure in the Cathedral organ and he thoroughly enjoyed this performance, and would have been happy to have been subjected to the entire work.
The great variety of ways in which Bach’s music can be treated, given some basic constraints, of an educated taste, is always a surprise. I found myself won over as the Aria began, projecting a very open and sophisticated statement. And the first variation followed suit in its sheer joyous optimism. There was something essentially of Bach in the adaptations even though there were obviously sounds that organs of his day could not have produced.
Variation 4 using pedals prominently created an even bolder and more colourful effect than could be obtained on either harpsichord or an organ of Bach’s time. Certain variations such as No 13, using light stops and charming, delicate embellishments, lost nothing at all of such refinement. No 16, in French ouverture style, offered a fine extrovert contrast that used power of the bigger stops to rousing effect.
Even though we heard fewer than half of the variations, Costin had chosen a very representative group; only a listener with the entire work in the memory might have regretted missing certain ones.
The charm of this performance lay in the enjoyment of the taste and skill of an organist who was clearly fully familiar with and in such full command of the instrument that he could have transformed music of much less intrinsic beauty and profundity into a totally rewarding experience.
'Middle C' Classical Music Reviews
26th July 2013
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
This CD is a compendium of English voluntaries spanning the period from the early 17th to the mid- 18th centuries. As Robert Costin notes, the resulting programme surveys a development in the style from the complex polyphony of Gibbons and Blow to the more Italianate, Handelian music of Stanley, Walond and Boyce. Costin's playing is honest and stylistically sensitive... The organ is the 1980 Mander instrument (with some pipework dating back to 1708) at Pembroke College, Cambridge; probably the first attempt in the UK to partially reconstruct a lost historic organ. Thirty-plus years later it sounds fresh, engaging and well-matched to the ringing acoustics of Wren's chapel.
Choir and Organ
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
Early English Organ Music from Pembroke College, Cambridge
Robert Costin, Organ
Atoll ACD 241 73:28
Works of composers ranging from Orlando Gibbons (1583–1625) to Stanley (1712–1786) are delicately exhibited on Pembroke Cambridge's Mander organ, all of which marry well...The works presented are all well known and well loved...All registrations are wholly appropriate and beautiful. The most admirable areas of this release are Boyce's Trumpet Voluntary in D major, and also Henry Purcell's Voluntary for Double Organ (Z719).
The Organ Magazine
The Excellent Art of Voluntary - Robert Costin at Pembroke College, Cambridge
Robert Costin is well known to New Zealanders since his time as assistant at St Paul's Cathedral Wellington and interim director at Holy Trinity, Auckland. Since his return to the UK, Robert has taken school music positions and is presently Music Director at Ardingly College, Sussex. Robert, a member of ORGANZ, maintains an active career as a recitalist and has returned to NZ frequently both for this and to make recordings over the past several years.
In this latest CD, Robert explores a rather neglected resource—the English Voluntary. The English Civil War and the Commonwealth period of the 17th century saw, in a few years, the destruction of most traditions of organ playing and building. At the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 there was a demand for church music and hence for skilled musicians and instruments but the lack of both remained unresolved for a time. To augment the limited number of local builders, two main organ builders were engaged from the continent (Renatus Harris and 'Father' Bernard Smith) in order to address the short fall, but by the time they had made appreciable progress English organ performance and the complexity of instruments that could be built was significantly behind that in Europe where larger instruments with pedal divisions had started to dominate.
This CD was recorded on the chapel organ of Pembroke College, Cambridge: an instrument built by Charles Quarles in 1708 using at least 3 ranks of Bernard Smith pipework which are still extant. Subsequent rebuilds were made in the prevailing fashion of the time until the 1980 rebuild by Manders which sought to restore the style of the instrument to something similar to its original form. The organ has 15 stops on the Great and Chaire divisions with a disposition typical of Restoration organs: the Great contains an 8' trumpet and two mixtures, one a Cornet V. The organ restoration also aimed to recreate contemporary winding with the use of diagonal reservoirs. The chapel (Christopher Wren) has excellent acoustics which complement the varied tonal colours effectively. A 6 stop pedal division was not used in this recording.
The recorded music is a good cross section of much fine music of the time with works by Jeremiah Clarke, Orlando and Christopher Gibbons, John Blow, Matthew Locke, Henry Purcell, John Stanley, William Croft, William Boyce, William Walond and George Frideric Handel. Restoration composers often compensated for limitations of their organs by writing dazzlingly complex passages for the manuals and this is evident here, especially in the Purcell Voluntary for Double Organ. Trumpet and Cornet Voluntaries are well represented including favourites like those of Stanley and Boyce. Nice to hear too, for a change, the Clarke Prince of Denmark's March in its original form rather than the heavier arrangements with pedals that we tend to use now. The Handel Overture to Samson is the only arrangement played here, but is justified as one which was published and performed extensively in the 18th Century.
Robert's playing on this CD is nicely articulated with well-considered registrations. The pyrotechnical passages, especially in the Purcell, are executed brilliantly and the whole recording never disappoints. On listening right through the varied collection, I would be happy for the music to continue.
I am aware of one review of this disk criticising the effects of the organ's winding which, in fast moving passages, can generate a degree of pitch fluctuation. This attitude seems to miss the point of using a recreated old English organ in order to produce sonorities close to what the original composers and performers would have heard and the effect certainly falls far short of interfering with one's appreciation of the music.
The CD booklet contains readable and informative notes written by Robert and gives the specification and some historical details of the organ.
In conclusion, I consider this to be an excellent offering which gives us some neglected repertoire played and recorded to high standards. I'm sure many of us have some of these works in our music collections, but how often do we look at it and think 'Oh I won't play that—it doesn't have pedals'? Well we should do so no more and Robert Costin and Atoll Ltd are to be congratulated on their decision to record this disk. Thoroughly recommended.
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
An excellent survey of 17th and 18thC British organ music, the earlier pieces built on the severe contrapuntal style of inheritance of Elizabethan/Jacobean fantasy. There are also famous, popular miniatures by Jeremiah Clarke, long thought to be by Purcell. The Pembroke instrument is entirely suitable and is well played and recorded.
Peter Grahame Woolf
2 September 2011
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
This is a very nicely presented and well-played disc which throws a welcome light on a much underrated area of the organ repertoire. For many, hearing such popular pieces as Jeremiah Clarke's Trumpet Tune or The Prince of Denmark's March in something very like their original guise will come as a shock, shorn as they are of harmonic filling or lavish ornamentation, but the clean lines and fresh-faced feel to Costin's performances makes for an absolutely charming listening experience. The intimacy of the music is nicely reflected in Atoll's clean-cut and direct recorded sound.
International Record Review
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
This collection draws on an important if not very large repertoire. The earlier composers built on the inheritance of Elizabethan/Jacobean fantasy. Their severe counterpoint requires concentrated listening, but is worth the effort. As Blow and Croft moved towards the baroque—though the pieces here are not among their more forwardly-looking ones—the music became simpler, more melodic. What the Handel followers—Stanley, Boyce and Walond—lost in depth, they gained in sheer attractiveness. The music is heard here on a suitably scaled organ, well recorded in a clear but not dry acoustic. It is played with good style and musicianship.
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
As this eclectic recording shows, the variety of influences on English music of the 17th and 18th centuries was a controversial thing, largely due to the huge political and religious turmoil that the country went through. The organ of Pembroke College partially dates from 1708, so it's not too different in timbre, scope and character from the native Restoration model of the late 17th century. In Christopher Gibbons' Voluntary in A minor, a pleasant registration accompanies a performance of polished technicality. In Jeremiah Clarke's trumpet tunes, you may wonder about the slightly more subdued nature of Costin's interpretation - a solid performance on a truly 'period' instrument. The thin texture of the Pembroke organ doesn't entirely do justice in mimicking Handel's full orchestral sound, but Costin's playing is stylish: bright and declamatory, and relaxed and reflective within the one work. A comprehensive playlist of the most influential and renowned English composers of the period, this is a CD I'd thoroughly recommend for its performances with huge technical polish and panache.
The Critic's Chair, Radio New Zealand
Sunday 26 June & Friday 1 July 2011
The Excellent Art of Voluntary
English 17th- and 18th-century organ music recorded at Pembroke College, Cambridge, is well presented by the organist, who was based in New Zealand in the 1990s before returning to the UK.
After his first solo CD Organ Triumphant, Costin recorded Herbert Howell's compositions on "Norma", the Dunedin Town Hall organ, and a third disc of music by Liszt and Reubke was recorded in the Wellington Town Hall by Atoll in 2008.
Restoration organ music was mainly of a brief improvisatory "voluntary" or verse, the music written down mainly as examples of the style. These 23 tracks run from Jeremiah Clarke's Prince of Denmark's March to Handel's Overture to Samson, with works by John Blow and others.
Highlight: flamboyant passages in two Purcell D minor voluntaries.
Otago Daily Times
Saturday 25 June 2011
Organ concert triumph of style and substance
Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra launched its Organ and Orchestra concert with a reminder of the unassailable genius of Joseph Haydn.
The overture to his oratorio Il Ritorno di Tobia is not major league by this composer's standards, but its zest and inventiveness proved an inspiration for Garry Walker, conducting an appropriately scaled-down group.
Anticipations of the younger Beethoven, along with some witty flourishes from a bygone age, were gracefully acknowledged.
Walker had commented on radio the previous day that this piece was like cleaning one's teeth after a heavy diet of meat and vegetables. In fact, the solid fare awaited us.
Some may have heard Guilmant's First Symphony for Organ and Orchestra last year at the launch of the refurbished Town Hall instrument but, thanks to Robert Costin's bold, forthright registrations, the work rang anew.
It was thrill-a-minute stuff. Pedal lines occasionally made one worry for the structural wellbeing of the building, although Costin brought forth subtler tinctures for softer passages, particularly with reeds.
Walker and his players were willing accomplices in reviving this immensely entertaining and flamboyant dinosaur.
From the first bars, Walker caught the Elgarian spirit with carefully balanced forces yet occasionally there was the feeling of too much time being taken. Here and there, complex scoring, combined with constant tempo fluctuations, sometimes detracted from textural clarity. Towards the end of the movement, a magical passage, poco meno mosso, reminded me of Walker, in interview, singling out Elgar for praise as an orchestrator, comparing him not only to Richard Strauss but to Debussy and Ravel. An unexpected French connection was certainly made on this and other pages.
The dark surge of the second movement set its concluding funeral march in a new perspective while the Adagio—one of the composer's loveliest slow movements—benefited greatly from the finesse of the wind section.
While the score itself has some formal problems in the Finale, with an overly robust march and the looming presence of Brahms, this did not hinder Walker from bringing the evening to an appropriately triumphal close.
Saturday April 16th 2011
Liszt: Fantasia and Fugue on Ad nos, ad salutarem undam S259
Reubke: Sonata on the 94th Psalm
Robert Costin, organ of Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand
These two immense masterpieces from the height of Romanticism in the 1850s make a fine coupling, each setting out challenges which stretch the technical, musical and interpretative powers of the finest organists. It has to be said at once that Robert Costin, playing the rarely-recorded fine Norman and Beard instrument of 1906, in Wellington, New Zealand, gives notably impressive accounts of both works, utilising the relatively vast range of colours available through this organ to expressive impact. Although Liszt died 125 years ago, his importance has only in recent decades come to receive anything like the recognition his genius deserves, and even today his significance is by no means as fully appreciated as it ought to be.
When one considers the impact a half-hour continuous work of such wide-ranging expression as this must have made 160 years ago, then one can begin to understand the delay in the full appreciation of Liszt: even today his Fantasia and Fugue on ’Ad nos’ is not a relatively easily-grasped work—it demands concentration from the listener and concentration and application from the performer, which in the latter instances it receives here from Robert Costin. This is a strikingly impressive performance, as is that of Reubke’s Sonata, which appeared six or so years after Liszt’s work, in 1857. There can surely be no doubt as to Liszt’s influence on the younger man, but although Reubke was only 24 when he died from tuberculosis in 1858, he was already an individual voice, cruelly taken from the world of music too soon.
In this work also, Robert Costin shows himself to be a player in total technical command, as well as being a searching and impressive interpreter whose registration and sense of dramatic juxtaposition in these major works reveal a very gifted musician. The recording quality is very successful indeed, and all in all this CD is most strongly recommended. One looks forward to further explorations of repertoire from this period by this artist.
The Organ Magazine
Liszt & Reubke Review
Costin, trained at the Royal Academy of Music and Cambridge, plays this brief program on the 4-57 stop organ (Norman & Beard 1906, restored 1986) in Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand. Both selections are truly symphonic in nature, requiring ample technique and an instrument with extensive specifications...Costin controls the tempo very well in Ad Nos (30:24), with an energetic opening and a very subdued and leisurely adagio section. The fugal conclusion is fine. There are a few breaks in continuity owing to the limited combination system, requiring some extra hands to help with page turning and stop manipulation. Miking seems to be quite close, which allows the quietest portions to come through. The Reubke fares as well. Its sections follow selected passages from the Psalm, creating musical reflections on the text. Both compositions are performed intelligently and with musicality.
American Record Guide
Robert Costin at the Wellington Town Hall
Liszt and Reubke organ works
It’s all too human a tendency to take familiar things for granted, no matter how intrinsically splendid or significant these things might be. Such a splendid and significant object is the magnificent organ in the Wellington Town Hall, known by sight to generations of concertgoers, but, alas, more rarely by sound. Built in 1906 by Norman and Beard Ltd., a renowned London and Norwich firm, and then extensively refurbished eighty years later, it has become the country’s most significant and historic organ of its type, maintaining its original specification, pneumatic action and electrical blowing equipment, characteristics which of course endear it all the more to lovers of the instrument and the repertoire. It’s played occasionally, but far less than its qualities merit, mostly due to changes in musical tastes rendering its repertoire somewhat unfashionable.
Thanks to a recent CD from Atoll Records, featuring music written to exploit the capabilities of an instrument such as the Town Hall organ, we can experience something of the beauty, excitement and grandeur of the organ’s sound-world. The player is English-born Robert Costin, currently director of music at Ardingly College, West Sussex, and previously organist at both St Paul’s Cathedral in Wellington and Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland.
A previous Atoll CD featured his playing of music by English composer Herbert Howells on the Dunedin Town Hall Organ (Atoll ACD606), and garnered excellent international reviews. This present recording, containing music by two of the nineteenth-century’s greatest composers for the instrument, Franz Liszt and Julius Reubke, has already received comparable praise both here and abroad.
The Fantasia and Fugue for organ on Ad nos ad salutarem undam was Liszt’s first work for the instrument, and was partly inspired by an invitation to the composer to write a work for the inaugural recital on the rebuilt organ at Merseberg Cathedral, at the time the largest organ in Germany. Liszt was to write several subsequent pieces for performance on the Merseberg organ, among them the famous Prelude and Fugue on the Name BACH.
He based the earlier work on a chorale melody from an opera by Meyerbeer, Le Prophéte, staged in Paris in 1849, a grandiose work of quasi-religious sentiment, dealing with the Anabaptist revolt in Germany in the 16th Century. Liszt had, in fact, been commissioned to transcribe a number of scenes from the opera for piano, and produced a version of Ad nos ad salutarem undam at the same time, after viewing the opera himself in Dresden in 1850. He dedicated the work to Meyerbeer, but undertook to revise the work several times before its final publication and premiere in 1855 in Merseberg Cathedral, performed by Alexander Winterberger.
Liszt’s work is a thirty-minute tour de force for the instrument. Though in a continuous single movement the music, like the composer’s B Minor Piano Sonata, delineates clearly defined episodes, the first of which is titled Fantasia, a powerful and dramatic exposition that enables Costin to show off the Wellington organ’s more spectacular characteristics. In particular, the build-up in this section leading to a series of fanfares at 5’16” has a positively scalp-prickling effect on this magnificent recording.
Meyerbeer’s chorale theme, referred to by Liszt in fragmented form during this first section, comes into its own during the F-sharp Adagio, where it is played in full, the music ethereal and beguiling throughout the composer’s other-worldly explorations. The sudden entry of a series of diminished seventh chords at the final allegro’s beginning comes as a terrific shock to the system—you have been warned! An energetic double fugue framed by suitably big-boned statements of the theme brings the work to a stirring and foundation-shaking close.
A contemporary of Liszt, Julius Reubke’s was a tragically short-lived career, the composer dying of tuberculosis in 1858 at the age of twenty-four. He studied with Liszt in Weimar for two years, and his organ work Sonata on the 94th Psalm dates from 1857, the young man himself premiering the work that year at the same Merseberg Cathedral as where Liszt’s work was first given.
Following the influence of his teacher, Reubke’s work is in one tightly-constructed movement, and has a programmatic content, with verses from the 94th Psalm printed in the score’s first edition, dealing with the idea of the Lord God rewarding the just and punishing the wicked. Listening to this skilfully integrated musical construction makes one regret all the more Reubke’s loss to the world at an early age—the only other major work he completed was a Piano Sonata. In terms of technical accomplishment and integrated musical thinking he showed himself in these two works the potential equal of his great master.
Costin’s skilful manipulation of the organ’s amazing colouristic variety is again a feature in this work —after the opening movement’s dramatic exposition, the central Adagio’s long-breathed themes seem at times the stuff of dreams, with Reubke’s explorations taking this listener’s sensibilities to far-off realms of feeling and imagination.
The contrast with the stern, imposing outer-movement frameworkings is stunningly delivered here, unerringly caught by Wayne Laird’s wide-ranging and beautifully-focused Atoll recording. I feel the disc will be an ear-opener for those concert-goers who, over the years, have often gazed upon the resplendent construction of the Town Hall organ, wondering “how it sounds”. Now’s their chance to find out just what the grand old instrument can do.
Middle C No 4 Part 1
Liszt & Reubke MusicWeb Review
Virtuoso English organist Robert Costin presents two great mid-19th German classics from Liszt and Reubke on the magnificent romantic symphonic organ of Wellington Town Hall, New Zealand. In the notes Costin describes the instrument as, “…a very fine, and extremely rare example of an English symphonic style organ”.
The organ of Wellington Town Hall was built in 1906 at a cost of £5000 by the eminent firm Norman and Beard Ltd. of London and Norwich. It was almost de rigueur in the late 1800s and early 1900s in many countries for a prestigious public building to have a substantial organ constructed. Norman and Beard benefited from this fervour for organs and were the builders of the organs at Norwich Cathedral (1899), Cheltenham College (1905), Winchester College Chapel (1908), Emmanuel College Chapel, Cambridge (1909), Usher Hall, Edinburgh (1914) and also the organ of Johannesburg Town Hall in South African.
In June 1901 the foundation stone of the Town Hall at Wellington, New Zealand was laid by the Duke of Cornwall and York, who later became King George V with construction commencing in May 1902. The Wellington Town Hall is recognised throughout the world for its wonderful acoustics; often referred to as near perfect. In the 1970-80s a successful campaign was fought against the possible demolition of the Town Hall. Subsequently the organ was restored in 1985/86 and its original specifications have been retained. For the technically minded this splendid Norman and Beard organ consists of four manuals and pedals, 57 speaking stops and 13 couplers.
Liszt's first work for organ the Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam', S.259 originated from his highly productive early period in Weimar. This version of the score came about as a result of a commission to write a work for the inaugural recital of the magnificent organ reconstructed by Friedrich Ladegast at the Merseburg Cathedral. Liszt visited the Merseburg Cathedral organ a number of times before it was completed in 1855, an instrument that in fact inspired several of his organ compositions.
The theme for the Fantasia and Fugue is based on a chorale from Giacomo Meyerbeer's highly successful French Grand Opera Le Prophète (The Prophet) in 5 acts from 1849 to a libretto by the eminent Eugène Scribe. Robert Costin writes that Liszt, “went to see the opera (Le Prophète) himself in Dresden and was impressed by much of Meyerbeer's music…Meyerbeer's melody clearly intrigued Liszt; its harmonic and melodic characteristics permeated every aspect of the work, lending it an impressive structural coherence”.
The Fantasia and Fugue was published in 1852 as the last of a set of four pieces entitled Illustrations du Prophète, S.414 (1849/50); the first three of the set were for piano. Liszt biographer the composer Humphrey Searle states that the Fantasia and Fugue, “…is certainly not an operatic fantasy. It is based on a chorale sung by three Anabaptists in the first act of the opera, where they call the people to seek re-baptism in the healing water.”A Meyerbeer's Latin text sung by the trio of Anabaptists Ad nos, ad salutarem undam, iterum venite miseri ad nos, as nos venite populi can be translated as To us, to the water of salvation, come to us again, you who are wretched, come to us, you people. Liszt dedicated the score to Meyerbeer and undertook several revisions on the Fantasia and Fugue before its 1855 première performance by soloist Alexander Winterberger at Merseburg Cathedral.
The Fantasia and Fugue on the chorale ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam' is a substantial score lasting just over thirty minutes. Cast in a single continuous movement the score has three discernable sections: Fantasia, Adagio and Fugue. Part of the chorale theme, that was Meyerbeer's own, is located at the start of the opening Fantasia section. Here I was struck by the power and terrific resonance of the Norman and Beard organ. The complete chorale theme is heard in the Adagio in F-sharp, sometimes known as Liszt's mystical key. I loved Costin's subtle playing in the meditative Adagio section that has a rather remote feel. Drama abounds in the final section a muscular and vigorous double fugue leading to the exultant conclusion.
A recommendable alternative version of the Liszt's Fantasia and Fugue is performed with drama and assurance by Andreas Rothkopf on the Wilhelm Sauer organ of the Evangelische Stadtkirche, Bad Homburg, Germany on Naxos 8.555079.
The son of an organ builder Julius Reubke only lived a short life before being struck down in his mid-twenties with tuberculosis. Two years before his untimely death in 1858 Reubke had studied with Liszt at Weimar following a recommendation from Hans von Bülow. Liszt took Reubke under this wing and allowed the young man to live at his Altenburg house. I first came across Reubke's music hearing his Piano Sonata in B flat minor (1857) a couple of years ago at a recital at my local concert society.
Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm from 1857 has a substantial single movement span in three sections. It lasts around twenty six minutes and has considerable programmatic elements. The first edition of Reubke's score contained printed verses from the 94th Psalm that were closely linked to the score's movements. Bearing a dedication to Professor Carl Riedel, the composer gave the première of the score on the Friedrich Ladegast organ at Merseburg Cathedral in June 1857.
I'm not sure how often Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm is played today. The world famous organist Sir George Thalben-Ball (1896-1987) who served at the Temple Church, London for sixty years had the Reubke score in his repertoire. Thalben-Ball first played the work in 1918 on the Father Smith organ (destroyed by bombing in 1941) at a public recital at St. Clement Danes, The Strand, London. There is a recording of Thalben-Ball playing the Fugue from Reubke's Sonata on the 94th Psalm on a recording of ‘British Organists of the 1920s'.
In the opening section of the Sonata on the 94th Psalm Robert Costin provides a heady kaleidoscope of mood and instrumental colour. The central section Adagio is steeped with a sacred character. I was struck by Reubke's adventurous writing especially the dark and shadowy excursion to the low registers of the organ at 2:28-2:59. Brisk and joyously uplifting the final section contains closing bars that aptly display the rich and powerful sonority of the instrument.
Soloist Robert Costin who studied at the Royal Academy of Music and Pembroke College, Cambridge is currently director of music at Ardingly College, West Sussex. In these scores by Liszt and Reubke, the assured Costin avoids the temptation to rush giving the music ample time to breath. Displaying consummate control he expertly demonstrates the range and luxuriant tone colours of the Norman and Beard organ at Wellington.
Liszt & Reubke CD
The pairing on disc of Reubke’s only major work for organ with Liszt’s great Fantasy on a theme from Meyerbeer’s Le Prophète makes good sense…[Costin] is certainly not short in either work on technical bravura or breadth of vision…As an interpretation this is certainly a strong performance, re-creating much of the visionary impact of Reubke’s depiction of verses from Psalm 94…Costin throws all caution to the wind in a brilliant virtuoso account of the Sonata’s concluding Fugue.
International Record Review
Liszt & Reubke Organ Works played by Robert Costin at Wellington Town Hall Organ
This, Robert Costin's 3rd CD, is a coupling of virtuoso works played on one of New Zealand's major heritage instruments. Robert returns to the 1906 Norman & Beard on which he recorded his first CD in 2003 but this time, rather than a selection of organ favourites, he has focussed on two major symphonic works from the romantic repertoire.
By the 1850s Liszt had largely retired from his early career as a piano recitalist and was based in Weimar where he was encouraged to take an interest in organ composition and performance. The work recorded here, his 'Ad Nos, ad salutarem undam', was commissioned for the dedication of a rebuilt organ encapsulating the growing romantic principles, at Merseberg Cathedral. The work, which evolved into the final form after some revisions of previous works, was based on a melody from Meyerbeer's opera Le Prophète which Liszt developed into a symphonic poem, clearly with orchestral resources and colouring in mind to exploit the resources of the rebuilt organ. Liszt's technical keyboard mastery is reflected in passages of dazzling complexity throughout the work.
Julius Reubke, the son of an organ builder, became a favoured pupil of Liszt in the Weimar years after attending the Berlin Conservatory. His unfortunately early death from tuberculosis was deeply regretted by Liszt and has robbed us of what should surely have been exceptional music. Only two works survive in the repertoire, a piano sonata and the work recorded here—his organ sonata 'On the 94th Psalm' which Reubke himself played at Merseberg Cathedral. The single movement work comprises a linked series of programmatic reflections on selected verses of the psalm and, like Liszt's Ad nos, is very symphonic in style with extended sections of great technical brilliance.
The symphonic character of both these works make the Wellington Town Hall organ an excellent choice, with its wealth of English romantic symphonic colours. However, the limited combination system poses some problems in fully exploiting this tonal resource, and I note that both Douglas Mews and Richard Prothero were engaged as page turners and assistants. Roy Tankersley also assisted with some last minute reed tuning. The recording captures the range of tonal colours and the dynamics effectively, yet is sufficiently distant in perspective to allow a feeling of the hall environment to be conveyed and the frequency range has adequately recorded the profundity of bass notes.
Robert Costin's performances of these works are very good, with tempi well chosen to display the immensely athletic nature of fast moving sections. Phrasing and articulation is well thought through and the gentler, more reflective, quiet passages are taken at very apt paces in order to allow the development of tonal colour to be appreciated.
This coupling of Liszt and Reubke inevitably brings to mind the similar coupling in the 1985 DGG recording by Simon Preston at Westminster Abbey and leads me to make some comparisons. Preston's recording luxuriates in the more extreme cathedral-style tonal colours of the Abbey instrument with the use of high pressure reeds and forward, almost neo-baroque, choruses caught in a relatively close recording. Robert's CD is less extreme in this regard and, while the 1906 Norman & Beard may not precisely mirror the 1850 Merseberg instrument, I am left feeling that it produces sonorities which are none-the-less closer to that period. The other issue is Preston's extreme technical brilliance has led to a recording in which some dazzling virtuosic passages are taken notably faster in comparison with Robert's. This can become a situation where the music is not necessarily best served by speed, since this can impede our ability to appreciate the complexity of harmonic development and subtleties of phrasing and rhythm. There are differences between these two recordings, but in my view, Robert's registrations and interpretation are no less valid nor less appropriate and can even work better for this repertoire.
The CD is packaged with an attractive booklet with well-researched and informative notes written by Robert Costin. A brief history of the organ and specifications are included. In conclusion, I find this to be an excellent CD and I thoroughly commend it as a fine example of massive organ repertoire played very convincingly on one of the jewels in New Zealand's crown of superb heritage organs. Robert Costin, Wayne Laird of Atoll and other contributors are to be congratulated for this.
NZ Organ News
Recital review, Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, New York, 6.4.2008
Bossi: Entrée Pontificale (1886-90)
Franck: Cantabile (1878)
Howells: Partita (1971)
The enormous vaults of New York's Saint Thomas Church were a fine match for Marco Enrico Bossi's grandly ceremonial Entrée Pontificale, which began Robert Costin's finely conceived half-hour recital. Bossi (1861-1925), son of an Italian organist, wrote operas, orchestral music and oratorios as well as organ works, but most are largely unperformed today. (This is the first time I can recall hearing anything by him.) This broadly phrased, triumphant few minutes showed Costin in immediate command of the Saint Thomas instrument, adding some thrilling textures in the thunderous conclusion.
Quite different was César Franck's Cantabile, a delicate, even winsome episode scarcely three minutes long. Costin used a reedy timbre to highlight the plaintive melody, which unfolds with quiet dignity. But the prize of the afternoon went to Herbert Howells' Partita, which Costin said is rarely performed. (I feel another rant coming on, about neglected works that should be played more often.) In five sections, it begins with a clamorous "Intrata" with some arresting chord progressions, ending with a low, ominous flourish. The quiet "Interlude" that follows has a chantlike opening, leading to a striking ending in the high register over a rock-bottom low pedal, both pianissimo. The frenzied "Scherzo" (well, "frenzy" of the Howells kind) eventually dissolves into a calm introspective "Epilogue," ending with a quiet, ruminative final page or so.
The fourth movement is titled "Sarabande for the 12th day of any October," a nod to the birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams, whom Howells apparently revered enough to feel that he should be remembered. It is a gentle homage, questioning and sober, that often evokes the great composer's enigmatic style. The tense "Finale and Retrospect" has phrases that erupt like shafts of sunlight, dimming to whispers before the fortissimo ending. Costin's intensity in the final pages was absolutely breathtaking.
Seen and Heard International
The Partita, Howells's "last major work," was the most impressive piece here ... I found it compelling. Its Intrata is gritty and meaty. Its Interlude is quiet, mysterious, and even haunting, rising to a strong, even dissonant summit. Its third movement is fleet and gripping ... Robert Costin showcases the range and sonic pallet of the organ of the Town Hall in Dunedin, New Zealand. It sounds wonderful ... The recording quality is excellent. Recommended.
Mention Herbert Howells and at once most organists and church musicians call to mind Howells' individual approach to harmonic colour and sensuousness.
This new release gives us an opportunity to explore significant organ works that are part of music's main-stream - a collection for the connoisseur of well crafted 'absolute music' compositions for the organ that become all the more rewarding after several hearings. These works show Howells' development as a composer throughout his life and the significance of his contribution to the organ repertoire.
It seems most appropriate to use a civic instrument for these 'absolute' works that 'get away from the church' as Howells puts it. These are virtuosic works placing tremendous demands on the player who must ensure that the big picture unfolds clearly and logically. Robert Costin succeeds admirably.
The CD notes are very helpful, giving us insight into the man behind the music. The opening sentence sets the scene. "Herbert Howells was a complex man, blest with great musical talent but dogged by personal insecurities and vanities throughout his long life." Howells' journey as a composer is highlighted in relation to the works we hear and the listener is encouraged to note the evidence of his powerful structural logic and cumulative power and set aside any thoughts of this music as being formless and meandering.
The CD opens with Howells 2nd Rhapsody which is dedicated to Dr. Alcock, the organist of Salisbury who appointed Howells as his assistant. (Because of ill health, Howells soon sidestepped a career as a Cathedral organist and built a distinguished teaching, examining and composing career instead).
The 30 minute Second Sonata (1932) follows (dedicated to George Thalben-Ball) with an opening dramatic movement in sonata form, a contemplative slow movement and angular melodies and dissonant harmonies in the third. Toccata-like textures round off the work.
A posthumous Intrata is followed by a Sonata which during composition evolved into a Partita and was completed in 1971. Howells had promised Edward Heath that if he ever became Prime Minister that he would compose a work for him! He kept his word and the premiere played by John Birch took place in 1972 with both composer and Prime Minister present. Recurring material binds the work together from opening energetic statements and subsequent development through to a retrospective section and a cascading finale finishing on a final major 7th chord.
Accolades to Robert Costin for his impeccable playing, subtle judgement of phrasing, beautifully controlled structural ebb and flow and apt registration throughout the performances. This CD is a triumph.
NZ Organ News
The organ music of Herbert Howells has been so well served on disc in the past few decades that it is no longer a rarity to encounter it in the record catalogues, but few CDs approach the excellence of performance of this issue from the New Zealand company Atoll. It is first-class in every respect, from the choice of repertoire to the depth of understanding given to this music by Robert Costin, who exhibits an intensity and admirable sense of forward momentum in his playing especially in the Rhapsody that should certainly not be taken for granted. His insight into this music is complete, which is exceptional in having been written over a 54-year period. The fine performance of the Rhapsody is followed by a thrilling account of the mighty Second Sonata, probing and compelling music which finds Costin fully understanding of its great lines in the first two movements the first-movement coda is superbly done and consistently of its character, especially in the rhythmic organization in the finale.
These same qualities of performance inhabit the splendid Partita written for Edward Heath when he became Prime Minister in 1970, fulfilling a promise Howells made about 30 years earlier (that if Heath ever became Prime Minister he would write a work for him) when the musician-politician was organ scholar at Balliol College, Oxford. (Not to be outdone, Margaret Thatcher invited Lorin Maazel to dinner at Downing Street, and got the French Prime Minister to attend the Proms with her.) The Partita's fourth movement Sarabande for the 12th day of any October (Vaughan Williams's birthday, Mrs Thatcher's is the 13th!), is followed by Finale and Retrospect, in which a host of musical allusions are cleverly interwoven in a fascinating tapestry.
The choice of repertoire here has been carefully selected. There is nothing forbidding about these pieces, the product of a sensitive, original and imaginative genius (not too strong a word) and as indicated earlier Costin plays admirably throughout. The recording is very good, at times outstandingly so...this is an excellent disc which would make a very good introduction to Howells's organ music.
International Record Review
Vista and Priory both recorded complete surveys of Howells's organ music, but listeners to this single-disc sample can feel well content. The second op.17 Rhapsody, the Second Sonata and Intrata and the austere late Partita are all abstract works, spanning 50 years, and unusual in the composer's output for being unencumbered with melancholy personal baggage or local association. Robert Costin has chosen his organ well, an English touring organ of plain-speaking reeds that eventually fetched up in the unclouded space of Dunedin Town Hall. This is Howells, but not as you know him, virile and dramatic.
Choir and Organ Magazine
Costin makes a fabulous job of the Organ Sonata No. 2, maintaining interest for the whole of its twenty-nine-plus minutes with masterly control of registration and impetus. The contrasting moods of the opening Vivo are perfectly judged, and Costin conveys the long-arch-like span of the slow movement. He also sustains wonderfully the excitement and, to an extent, tension of the concluding Allegro assai. By any standards this is a most arresting performance of one of Howells' finest compositions...[the organ] sounds ideally suited to Howells' music and possesses a complete range of cathedral-like tone colours - Gloucester comes to mind ‑ that Costin fully exploits.
On track: A celebration of the organ's thunder and fury
Auckland composer Dorothea Franchi had many tales to tell of the English composer Herbert Howells as she was his pupil in the 1940s. Just imagine the coming together of this most English of gentlemen and such a Kiwi pragmatist.
Music by Howells (1892-1983) has struggled to gain a mainstream audience and there was a time when hard-core devotees treasured an early LP of his Hymnus Paradisi, a score that Dorothea admired greatly.
A wider span of music is now available, including a handsome set of his songs with another New Zealand connection one of the singers is New Zealand soprano Catherine Pierard.
New Zealand's Atoll label has just added to the storehouse. Robert Costin's recital of Howell's organ music, played on the Dunedin Town Hall organ, is an eminently satisfying venture. Resist if you can the defiant, brooding textures of the opening Rhapsody in E flat minor, captured by producer Wayne Laird with almost alarming immediacy.
These eight minutes remind you that this splendid organ is a star too, already immortalised in Kemp English's two Stormin Norma discs.
The other short piece, an Intrata, also from the 1940s, sets off in gentler mode, weaving delicate textures with Costin's well-judged registrations and keen articulation, until it, too, erupts in fury.
But the really monumental pieces here are the Second Organ Sonata of 1934 and the Partita of 1971.
The first movement of the sonata is a real thunderer, yet the second movement looks towards the pastoral simplicity of the English folksong. Costin has the measure of both to perfection.
The Partita has political connections of a sort. When in Oxford, Howells promised fellow student Edward Heath that he would pen him an organ sonata should he ever become Prime Minister of England. When it came true in 1970, promises were kept and what was to be Howells last major work was written.
Costin lays the five movements out skilfully, from what I hear as anger in the modernistic first to translucently toned tribute to Ralph Vaughan Williams in Sarabande for the 12 day of any October.
Don't wait to chase up this CD.
New Zealand Herald
August 2 2006