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CD Review

Leo Sowerby

Naxos 8.559028

Works for Organ & Orchestra

  • Classic Concerto
  • Medieval Poem **
  • Pageant *
  • Festival Musick
David Mulbury, organ
* David Craighead, organ
** Rita Lilly, soprano
The Fairfield Orchestra/John Welsh
Naxos 8.559028 (also available on Marco Polo 8.223725) 70:29
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Summary for the Busy Executive: Interesting and attractive.

Most of the American national media focuses on the two coasts, left and right, but an awful lot of art – and arguably some of the best art – gets created in the middle of the country. Chicago has had its fair share of great writers, artists, and composers, many of whom had to leave for New York in order to get their work noticed. The list includes people like Nelson Algren, Carl Sandburg, James T. Farrell, Ruth Crawford (before she met and married Charles Seeger), Easley Blackwood, Ned Rorem (by now, I suppose, a New Yorker by adoption), and Leo Sowerby.

Sowerby had a prominent and successful career. If you were to ask a classical-loving Midwesterner of a certain age to name an American composer, hearing Sowerby's name wouldn't surprise you. But his work hasn't really lasted, although it's all very well made. One can find many reasons for the neglect (more later). Although he wrote in many genres, it's his organ music that has mostly stuck. Even in my little Ohio town, the local Protestant church organists regularly played Sowerby (and Healy Willan).

Sowerby's music is mainly comfortable, a word I use without disparagement. It's comfortable like the front porch of a big old Midwestern double-decker. It reminds me a bit of the Wright prairie houses or the novels of James Branch Cabell – an intellectually awkward combination of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, though the workmanship is very high indeed. One gets an inkling of this in the Classic Concerto for organ and strings. It begins with open-fifth harmonies and aggressive rhythms, much like the openings to the Hindemith organ sonatas, but the lyric subject reveals Sowerby's artistic heart firmly beating with the French Wagneristes and Franckians of the previous century, one possible reason why it leaves me a bit cold. Franck and his school in general fail to move me. In a way, Sowerby's music resembles Howard Hanson's. But Hanson, unlike Sowerby, has an individual, instantly recognizable voice. I would find a comparison of the Hanson organ concerto to this Sowerby one very instructive. In broad outline, both concerti show similar habits of structural thinking, the same kinds of harmonies, and the same Romantic traditionalism. But the Hanson, for me, bleaches out the Sowerby, despite many fine moments in the latter.

Yet it's a mistake to dismiss Sowerby. He wrote over five hundred works, ninety before he reached 19, and he lived a long time. One keeps coming across gems in his output, like the Mediaeval Poem for organ, orchestra, and soprano. It comes across as beautifully felt, an avowed meditation on religious awe. The organ seamlessly integrates with the orchestra. The orchestration in general is quietly stunning – not only supremely competent, but genuinely poetic as well. The soprano declaims two vocalise phrases toward the end and provides yet another sound-color. I can think of no work, other than by Sowerby where the organ works so well with the orchestra.

Sowerby wrote Pageant as a virtuoso vehicle for the Vatican organist Fernando Germani, known for his stupendous pedal technique. It helps a lot that Sowerby was a fine organist himself. The writing is fiendish, but not outlandish, and the work opens with a tootsie-tappin' cadenza, mainly (if not entirely) for the feet. Germani supposedly responded, "Now write me something hard." Sowerby designed the piece to amaze the listener, and it does its job, although it doesn't do much, if anything, more than that.

E. Power Biggs inspired Festival Music and premièred it on his radio program in the early Fifties (as he did the Classic Concerto). Written for organ, brass, and timpani, the work falls into three movements, with Sowerby at the top of his game. The main themes all share a family look – dorian or mixolydian mode emphasizing the fourth and fifth scale degrees. The opening movement combines a brass fanfare with a Widorian toccata figure for its music argument. The second movement varies a chorale idea. The final movement incorporates a musical joke, suggested by Biggs: three similar themes – A-G-O (American Guild of Organists), A-A-G-O (Associate of the American Guild of Organists), and F-A-G-O (Fellow of the American Guild of Organists), the latter two certificates awarded by the A.G.O. on the basis of examination. F, A, and G, of course, all belong to the scale. It's Sowerby's solution of the "O" (which he achieves through a kind of punning) that initially sets up the suspense. Afterwards, however, it's Sowerby's treatment that keeps the movement's considerable interest.

Other than hitting a lot of clams or failing to shape a piece or really screwing up registrations, I have a great deal of trouble telling organists apart. Certainly, I haven't the expertise to distinguish Craighead from Mulbury. Craighead I know as an eminence among American organists. He's also recorded the Harrison and Hanson concerti. Both performers do well by the music. The recorded sound is fine.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz

Trumpet