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Ralph Vaughan Williams - A Vision of Aeroplanes - Finzi Singers/Spicer, Bicket

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Published on Dec 5, 2011

Performed by the Finzi Singers, director Paul Spicer, organist Harry Bicket, in the church of Saint Alban the Martyr, Holborn, London, on 26th & 27th September 1990 and released as Chandos CHAN 9019. I do not own any rights to this recording, but thought it would be of interest to many. Sadly, this most excellent CD, featuring works by Vaughan Williams and Howells (including the latter's Requiem), has been deleted from Chandos' catalogue and is only available as a digital download or as a CD-R. However, I still suggest that you support Chandos by buying it in one of these formats: see http://www.chandos.net/details06.asp?.... Maybe we could persuade them to re-release it properly!

Programme notes copyright Paul Spicer, 1992, with tiny modifications by myself:
Ralph Vaughan Williams' "A Vision of Aeroplanes" was written in 1955 for Harold Darke and his St Michael's Singers (of St Michael's church, Cornhill, in the City of London, where Darke was organist for many years). The composer took a section of Chapter One of Ezekiel, which, if read in a particular way, seems to foresee the aeroplane: "I looked, and behold, a whirlwind came out of the North, a great cloud, and a fire infolding itself... Also out of the midst thereof came the likeness of four living creatures... and every one had four faces and... four wings... and the living creatures ran and returned as the appearance of a flash of lightning... their appearance and their work was, as it were, a wheel in the middle of a wheel... and when the living creatures were lifted up from the earth... the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels... and when they went, I heard the noise of their wings, like the noise of the great waters, as the voice of the Almighty".

Vaughan Williams sets this text almost as an organ concerto. The virtuosic organ part swirls and pulses as it conjures up the rhythm, bite and energy of aero-engines. The choral parts, too, given some fearsome chromatic semiquaver passages to sing, provide an atmospheric painting of the text. The ending underlines the 'revelatory' nature of the words as the organ leaves us on our knees with our faces to the ground, wondering if we dare look up...

The church was originally by William Butterfield, but was mostly destroyed by Second World War bombing in 1941 - appropriate to this music! The present church (consecrated 1961) was reconstructed from the fragmented ruins of Butterfield's building by Adrian Gilbert Scott (younger brother of the more famous Sir Giles, son of George Gilbert Scott Jr and nephew of John Oldrid Scott): the entire East wall is covered by a huge mural of the Last Judgment, widely regarded as Hans Feibusch's crowning masterpiece. The original Father Willis organ, which was destroyed in the bombing, was replaced by a new Compton organ, the company's last, details of which can be found at http://www.npor.org.uk/cgi-bin/Rsearc... - it is notable amongst Compton organs in that most ranks are not extended or shared between departments. Sadly, by this time, the Compton company's organs were out of fashion, it was hemorrhaging employees (including Johnny Degens and Maurice Forsyth-Grant) and John Compton himself was dead - the company was being run by his right hand man Jimmy Taylor, but Taylor also died soon after this last instrument's completion. Don't be fooled by what you see of the organ in the picture: most of the organ is only visible from the gallery, only a small part being in the centre case. This organ is famous/infamous (depending on who you speak to!) as one of the loudest organs in Britain, despite its average size: it is said that the Compton company was so used to voicing organs for constricting chambers, often in acoustically dead buildings (including theatres), that the ideal situation of a spacious, open axial gallery position in a very resonant building presented something of a challenge! Nevertheless, its quality is evident in this recording, from PPP strings to the brilliant, powerful plenum and the devastating tutti. The organbuilder was chosen by and the instrument itself was designed and inaugurated by Arnold Richardson [a pupil of the great G. D. Cunningham], who had been Director of Music at the church until its destruction in the war. He gave the British premiere of Messiaen's La Nativité du Seigneur at St Alban's in 1938 on the four-manual Father Willis organ then present. Interestingly, he was also Civic Organist at Wolverhampton Civic Hall, where he presided over a similar Compton organ of 1937, notable for being concealed in the roof of the hall, which also survives in regular use thanks to the efforts of Steve Tovey, Cameron Lloyd and crew at the Cannock Chase Organ Club. It is now largely used for light music, having had several theatre-type ranks added. A Melotone unit originally served this purpose but was disconnected in 1939.

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