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This disc takes as its theme the variation form. Max Reger's Introduction and Passacaglia, a wonderfully bracing opening, needs no introduction for organ aficianados : here its passacaglia (effectively Bach flowing into Liszt), mysteriously launched on pedal woods, enjoys a smoothly assured, relatively legato performance, albeit not always galvanising or meticulously paced at the joins. Guilmant's Morceau de Concert is in fact a compact, possibly (compared with his successors) slightly simplistic set of variations; the effects Etherington achieves -- not least in the striking 'sighing' effect in the accompaniment of Variation IV [listen -- REGCD176 track 8, 1:45-2:38] show it off to glorious and varied effect, though again I find Etherington's quirkier rubato touches tend to rock the rhythm unduly.

Karl Höller's Ciacona, another work descended from Bach's great Passacaglias and Ciaconas, will be an invaluable find to those unfamiliar with this fine Munich-trained composer (1907-1987) whose father was organist of Bamberg Cathedral in Bavaria. A substantial fifteen minute piece [listen -- REGCD176 track 10, 5:45-7:16], it offers an impressive and satisfying, broad-brushed treatment of the theme, softly introduced in the pedals, some intriguingly wood-and string-registered soft passages, an extraordinary dark woodwind sequence (here suggesting the finest of Cavaille-Colls) and moments of striking, elusive fugal writing. Karg Elert's Pax Vobiscum is given an appropriately weighty, almost 'nobilmente' treatment.

Flor Peeters's Variations on an Old Flemish Tune offer a fine evocation of this twentieth century Flemish master and Marcel Dupré pupil (1903-86), organist of St Rombout's cathedral in Malines (Mechelen in Flemish) whose choral as well as organ output is of considerable substance and still underperformed outside his native Flanders. Etherington not only emphasises Peeters' contrapuntal mastery, but with his imaginative registrations catches the spiritual spark and vitality (not least in a vivid short scherzando). The debt to Dupré is especially evident at the outset and in a vivid undertow to the reed-led slow fourth variation, plus the massive Allegro, with prominent pedal reed, in variation 5. Variation 6 is a Bach Chorale Prelude in all but name, with a distinct Paschal feel; possibly Peeters' final Toccata is a little too blandly conceived.

Some vivid upper ranks enliven the chirpy third and last variation of Jean Langlais' Theme and Variations. More interesting is the big Bach-Busoni conception of a set of Handel variation by Arno Landmann (1887-1966), who was a pupil of Reger and his successor Karl Straube -- one of the greatest and sometimes unsung German turn of the century teachers -- at Leipzig. Etherington adopts an apt change in registration, giving vent to the diapasons that would have been the lynchpin of organs in Handel's own time. This is a vivid and exciting reading, clearly articulated to make the most of this admirably voiced organ, and with some subtle, elusive soft transitions and variations in midstream that verge on the pure and ethereal. Etherington has performed a particular service by including the Höller and the Landmann, a reminder of the wealth of central European repertoire that remains to be mined.

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Copyright © 24 May 2003 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry, UK


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